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The Rheumatoid Arthritis Gender Gap: How RA Differs in Women

Some things in life seem to be more gender-specific to women: scrapbooking, stretch marks, book groups, addiction to Desperate Housewives. Unfortunately, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is also one of them.

Anyone can get RA, but from the number of people who get rheumatoid arthritis to how it affects them, the disease can be different for women than it is for men. The more you know about the differences, experts say, the better you can deal with your own RA.

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Fast Facts About Women and RA

Though scientists don't know what causes RA, they do know it hits women harder: 

More women than men have rheumatoid arthritis. About 1.3 million American adults have RA. Nearly three times more women have the disease than men. 

Rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike women younger. Many women are at the height of careers and child-care responsibilities when it strikes.

Women with RA are less likely than men to be in remission early in the disease. Research suggests that men are more likely to achieve sustained remission – lasting for two or more doctor visits in a row – during the first two years of having RA than women. But those gender differences don’t appear to last after two years with the disease.

Recent studies have revealed other important differences for women with RA.

RA Is on the Rise in Women

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic reported in 2008 that while RA appears to have been on the decline from 1955 and 1994 in the U.S., that no longer appears to be the case for women. The study found that from 1995 to 2005 the number of women who got RA increased by nearly 50% over the number that got it in the previous decade. RA rates among men remained stable. 

RA May Be More Severe in Women

In a large study released in 2009, researchers found that women with RA reported more symptoms and more severe symptoms -- even when they appeared to have the same level of the disease as men. Women also did not respond as well to the same treatment -- both in terms of what their doctors could measure, like swollen joints, and in terms of how they described their symptoms. 

Why the difference? Researchers aren't sure. Some of these women may have associated fibromyalgia which can worsen RA symptoms. Some scientists speculate that the medicines used to treat RA may affect women and men differently.

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