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The Gender Gap: How RA Differs in Women

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Anyone can get RA, but the numbers don’t lie. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects more women than men. And the disease hits each gender in different ways. Bottom line: The more you know, the better you can manage your own RA.

Fast Facts About Women and RA

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

  • About 1.3 million American adults have RA. Nearly three times more women have the disease than men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike women when they're 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 reach remission -- meaning having no symptoms -- early in the disease.

RA and Women: What Does the Research Say?

It’s on the rise in women: Researchers from the Mayo Clinic found that RA was on the decline in the U.S. from 1955 to 1994. But between 1995 and 2005 the number of women who got RA went up over the number that got it in the previous decade. Meanwhile, RA rates among men remained the same.

It may be worse for women: In one study, researchers found that women with RA reported more symptoms, and more severe symptoms, even when they had the same level of the disease as men. Plus, women 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 have fibromyalgia, which can worsen RA symptoms. Some doctors think the medicines that treat RA don’t affect women the same way they do men.

The Role of Hormones

It's likely that hormones play a large role in how men and women have RA. Some women get the disease at times when their sex hormones are in flux, 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 women who breastfed for 2 years or more cut their risk of rheumatoid arthritis in half.

Right now, doctors treat RA the same in both genders. But as we learn more about the role that hormones and other things play, scientists may be able to create treatments just for women.

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