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The Gender Gap: How RA Differs in Women

Anyone can get rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but it’s more common among women than men. The disease affects each gender in different ways. The more you know, the better you can manage it.

Fast Facts About Women and RA

  • About 1.3 million American adults have RA. Nearly three times more women have the disease than men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike women at a younger age than men.
  • Women with RA are less likely than men to reach remission -- which means they have no symptoms -- early in the disease.

RA may be worse for women. In one study, researchers found that those with RA reported more symptoms, and more severe symptoms, even when they had the same level of the disease as men. They also didn't respond as well to the same treatment as men, either in terms of what their doctors could measure, like swollen joints, or based on how they described their symptoms.

No one knows why. Some women may also have fibromyalgia, which can worsen RA symptoms. Some doctors think the medicines that treat RA affect the genders differently.

The Role of Hormones

Some women get the disease at times when their sex hormones are shifting, such as after pregnancy or around menopause. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to improve during pregnancy and may flare again after delivery.

Breastfeeding makes women less likely to get RA. One study showed that those who breastfed for 2 years or more cut their risk of rheumatoid arthritis 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. The goal is to put RA into remission ASAP.

Besides taking medicine, it also helps to stay at a healthy weight, get plenty of sleep, make exercise a habit, rest when you need to, and eat a healthy diet. It’s also important to ask for help and support if you get fatigued, and to let your loved ones know what you need.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on November 21, 2014

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