Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has several risk factors that increase a person’s chance of developing the condition. While an individual may not be able to prevent RA, they can take steps to help reduce their chances of developing it.

For RA and many other conditions, there are some risk factors that a person can change, known as modifiable risk factors. There are also non-modifiable risk factors, which they cannot change.

Non-modifiable risk factors include a person’s age, race, and genes. Modifiable risk factors that a person can change include steps such as stopping smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and more.

This article focuses on the modifiable risk factors for RA that a person can take steps to change in order to lower their risk of developing the condition.

An older adult performing physical activity to help prevent developing rheumatoid arthritis.Share on Pinterest
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RA is a type of inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disorder. It primarily affects the joints, but the widespread inflammation can affect other organs and tissue throughout the body.

While experts know a lot about the condition, they still do not know the exact cause.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, researchers theorize that people with RA have certain genes that become triggered due to stress or other environmental factors that cause the immune system to overreact.

As a result, there is no guaranteed way to prevent RA. That said, there are ways a person can reduce their risk of developing the condition.

Which risk factors can a person not change?

Several risk factors are non-modifiable, meaning a person cannot change them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these include:

  • Sex: Cases of RA are 2–3 times higher in females than males.
  • Genetics: People with certain genes are more likely to develop the condition than other people. They are also more likely to develop more severe cases of RA. These genes are called human leukocyte antigen class II genotypes.
  • Age: Although it can start at any age, the risk of developing RA increases as a person gets older.

The CDC also notes that people who have never given birth may have a higher risk of developing RA.

The CDC recognizes smoking as a known risk factor for RA and many other health complications. However, according to a 2020 analysis, the exact way it influences RA is still not clear.

The researchers note the need for additional studies to understand the exact way in which cigarette smoke increases the risk of developing RA, as well as how it interacts with and changes the onset and course of the condition.

To reduce the risk of developing RA, a person should avoid or quit smoking. Parents and caregivers should also avoid smoking around children.

People may find it beneficial to speak with a doctor to find out how to quit smoking.

In addition, several resources can help a person quit smoking. These include support groups and over-the-counter patches and gums.

The American Lung Association offers a support group called Freedom From Smoking that a person can join here.

Learn 11 tips for giving up smoking.

Having obesity can increase a person’s risk of developing RA.

Some things a person can do to help achieve and maintain a healthy weight include:

  • Taking part in regular exercise: This can include a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or activities, and at least 2 days of resistance or weight training.
  • Eating a healthy diet: A person should aim to include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, such as olive oil, in their diet.
  • Joining a support group: Local support groups can help a person lose weight healthily.
  • Using fitness apps: Apps can help record a person’s progress, track food intake, and provide meal suggestions.
Learn more

Learn more about losing weight:

Exposure to pollutants and other environmental conditions may increase a person’s risk of developing RA.

Several studies have looked at pollution’s potential role in RA’s development. In a 2019 study spanning a year, researchers noted that exposure to carbon monoxide and ozone increased an adult’s risk of developing RA.

It may not be possible to reduce or prevent a person’s exposure to air pollution. However, the British Lung Foundation provides tips on how to reduce exposure to air pollution on days when the levels of air pollution are high:

  • Avoid or reduce strenuous exercise when outside.
  • Get to work a little earlier to avoid the air pollution related to rush hour.
  • If possible, avoid pollution hotspots, such as busy road junctions and main roads.
  • If a person walks, runs, or cycles, try a route that avoids areas with heavy vehicle congestion.

There appears to be little evidence that wearing a face mask helps prevent exposure to air pollution.

To find out if air pollution will be high, a person can check the weather reports, or use the online tools from AirNow or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gum disease and inflammation is another potential risk factor for RA. According to a 2015 article, there is a high incidence of periodontitis in people with RA.

This may be due to an increase of Prevotella and Selomonas bacteria. These bacteria in the mouth produce enzymes that create citrullinated peptides, which can trigger an autoimmune response.

Good dental hygiene and regular visits to the dentist may reduce the risk of developing gum disease that can increase the risk for RA.

Learn how to care for teeth and gums.

According to a 2022 research review, there are theories that the gut microbiome communicates with the immune system and produces bacteria that can trigger an autoimmune response, increasing the risk of RA.

There are also gut bacteria that can reduce the immune response.

To help maintain a healthy gut microbiome, a person can try the following:

  • Increase their intake of dietary fiber.
  • Increase their intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, from oily fish.
  • Reduce their intake of white carbohydrates and simple sugars, such as white bread.
  • Reduce their intake of omega-6-rich foods, such as corn and sunflower oil.
  • Lower their salt intake.

Authors of a 2020 study note that people with RA benefit from early treatment. Early treatment can help:

  • suppress disease activity
  • provide relief from symptoms
  • prevent joint damage
  • achieve drug-free remission

A person’s chances of achieving drug-free remission decrease gradually over time.

An individual who notices any symptoms of RA should contact a doctor. A doctor can refer a person to see a rheumatologist, who can help diagnose the condition and recommend treatment.

There is no way to prevent RA, but a person can take some steps to help reduce their risk. This includes avoiding or quitting smoking, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding high levels of air pollution when possible.

A person may also find that early treatment can help them achieve remission sooner. A person should speak with a doctor as soon as they notice symptoms that RA may cause.