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The Gender Gap: How RA Differs in Women

It's not your imagination. If you notice that more of your women friends have rheumatoid arthritis than the guys you know, the stats back it up. About 1.5 million Americans have RA -- and about three times more women have it than men.

The disease acts differently in each gender, too. The more you know, the better you can manage it.

How RA Affects Women

Rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike women at a younger age than men -- and can hit harder, too. In one study, researchers found that women with RA reported more symptoms, and more severe ones, even when they had the same level of the disease as men. Women in the study also didn't respond as well to the same treatment as men.

Early in the disease, women with RA are also less likely than men to reach "remission," which means they have no symptoms. Some women may also have fibromyalgia, which can make RA symptoms worse.

The Role of Hormones in Women

Some women get the disease at times when their sex hormones are shifting, such as after pregnancy or around menopause. If you're pregnant, your RA may improve, but it may flare again after you have your baby.

If you're breastfeeding you're less likely to get rheumatoid arthritis. One study shows that women who breastfed for 2 years or more cut their risk of getting the disease in half.

What Does It Mean for You?

For anyone with RA, man or woman, the key is to start treatment as early as possible. It can halt or slow the disease and prevent joint damage and complications like osteoporosis and heart disease.

There's more to treatment than just medicine. It also helps if you stay at a healthy weight, get plenty of sleep, make exercise a habit, rest when you need to, and eat healthy foods. And don't forget to ask for help and support when you get tired. Let your friends and family know how you feel and what you need from them.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on December 02, 2015

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