Obesity raises women’s risk of rheumatoid arthritis

An estimated 1.5 million U.S. adults have the autoimmune disorder. Complications include heart problems, lung disease and osteoporosis.

By — Posted May 16, 2012

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When talking to patients about health risks associated with being overweight or obese, physicians should discuss rheumatoid arthritis, says the lead author of a recent study.

People with a history of obesity have a 1.2 times greater risk of developing the autoimmune disorder than those who have maintained a healthy weight, according to the study published online April 18 in Arthritis Care & Research.

The risk is greater for obese women than men, but the reason for that is unclear, said lead study author Eric Matteson, MD, MPH. The study defined obese participants as those who had a body mass index of 30 or greater.

The findings come when the prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis is increasing among women after 40 years of declines, the study said. Obesity also continues to rise among Americans, with 36% of adults and 17% of children and adolescents considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We can add rheumatoid arthritis to the very long list of health problems that are associated with obesity,” said Dr. Matteson, chair of the division of rheumatology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “What’s important in primary care is that physicians continue working with patients to help them maintain a normal weight, stay fit and exercise.”

An estimated 1.5 million U.S. adults had rheumatoid arthritis in 2007, according to the most recent CDC data. Those with the condition have an increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, heart problems, lung disease and osteoporosis.

Researchers examined the medical records of 813 adults 18 and older who lived in Olmsted County, Minn., and were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis between Jan. 1, 1980, and Dec. 31, 2007. For each person with arthritis, a control of the same age and sex without the condition was randomly selected from the Rochester Epidemiology Project.

Researchers found that 40% of participants with arthritis were obese when they were diagnosed with the condition or had been obese. Among people without arthritis, 36% were obese or had a history of obesity (link).

Although the prevalence of obesity increased among all participants during the study period, being overweight had a significantly greater impact on women’s risk of developing arthritis than on men’s risk. The age-adjusted incidence of arthritis in women rose from 50 people per 100,000 population in 1995 to 56 people per 100,000 population in 2007. Researchers said obesity accounted for 52% of the increase in the rate of diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in women during that period.

“These findings suggest that unless the obesity epidemic is controlled, the incidence and prevalence of rheumatoid arthritis will continue to rise,” the study said.

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