Are You at Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

The cause of RA remains unknown, but experts believe risk factors like genetics and environmental exposures play a role.

A woman holds her hand and wonders about rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes and risk factors and whether RA is genetic.

Medically reviewed in March 2022

As you get older, it's normal to feel occasional joint pain or stiffness that comes and goes, but what if that awful, early morning stiffness won't ease up? If you're experiencing prolonged joint pain, or joints that are swollen, red or feel hot, you may have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease where part of your immune system attacks your joints. While experts don't fully understand what causes RA, they believe the disease is influenced by a combination of genetics and things in our environment.  

Here are seven risk factors for RA that may increase your chances of getting the disease—or affect your disease progression if you already have the inflammatory joint condition. 

Genetics: People with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to develop it, but not everyone with a genetic predisposition for RA gets it, which suggests other environmental risk factors may play a role. 

Environment: Research suggests a viral or bacterial infection can cause rheumatoid arthritis, but scientists have yet to conclude one single organism as the culprit. According to the latest science, potential rheumatoid arthritis triggers include E. coli, the Epstein-Barr virus, and the parvovirus. 

Smoking: You may not be able to prevent RA, but you do have some control over the progression of the disease. Smoking—and exposure to secondhand smoke—are among the top rheumatoid arthritis risk factors. They may also increase the severity of RA in people who already have it. 

Sex: Being a woman doesn't cause the disease, but your sex can be a significant risk factor for RA. Seventy-five percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis are women, making women two to three times more likely than men to develop RA. The reason for this is unclear, although there's some evidence that hormones—particularly estrogens—may play a role. 

Reproductive and breastfeeding history: Women who've never had a live birth, have irregular cycles, or enter menopause early have a slight-to-moderately increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have found that RA is less common among women who breastfeed. 

Age: People between the ages of 30 and 60 are at a higher risk of developing RA, although it can happen at any age. The risk of RA, in both women and men, is highest for people in their sixties. 

Ethnicity: Rheumatoid arthritis occurs in people of all ethnicities, but some American Indian and Alaskan Native populations have a significantly higher incidence of RA than other ethnic groups.

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