Rheumatoid Arthritis Increasing in White Women

For decades, rheumatoid arthritis numbers were on the decline. But the downward trend that could be seen in this country for roughly forty years leveled off in the '90s, and now researchers have identified an uptick in one particular segment of the population-white women.

The study, carried out at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, involved analyzing data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, which has tracked the healthcare records of nearly everyone in one particular Minnesota county since the early 20th century. From 1955 to 1994, the number of new cases of rheumatoid arthritis went steadily down in both sexes in this county. From 1995 to 2007 it leveled off for men, but the incidence of the disease increased by 2.5 percent per year in women.

Why the sudden reversal in women? The scientists aren't sure, but say that since genes don't mutate that quickly, environment is the likely culprit. Smoking, a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis, has declined over the years, but less quickly for women than for men. The researchers also point to the birth-control pill as a plausible target. While the pill has been proven to protect against rheumatoid arthritis, today's pills contain much less estrogen than pills of the past, which may mean less protection against arthritis. Finally, Vitamin D deficiency is also a possibility, as it's been rising over the past few years, especially in women.

Although the researchers didn't set out to specifically monitor the health status of white women, 90 percent of the county involved in the project is white. Thus, the team feels confident that the results they're seeing can be applied to the white female population as a whole. If you're a white woman, it's important to realize that your chances of contracting the disease are, in general, small. And while you may not be able to prevent rheumatoid arthritis, you certainly can minimize your risk by avoiding cigarettes and making an effort to get more Vitamin D, either from fortified foods such as milk or by spending a small amount of time in the sun each day.



Source: National Institutes of Health, www.nlm.nih.gov.