An illustration of that shows icons depicting no smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, healthy body mass index, physical activity, and healthy diet with the text: Healthy Lifestyle Habits Can Help Prevent Rheumatoid Arthritis
Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

Key Takeaways

  • Following certain healthy habits can significantly reduce your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a large study showed.
  • Each healthy habit that someone engaged in (such as having a healthy weight, not smoking, or following a generally healthy diet) reduced the risk of RA by 13 percent.
  • The more healthy habits you follow, the lower your risk — and this may be especially important for those with a family history.

No one knows exactly what causes rheumatoid arthritis (RA), though a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors are likely the main culprits. While several studies have linked smoking and being sedentary to an increased risk of RA, it’s never been entirely clear just how much impact engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors really mattered.

Now new research suggests that a significant number of rheumatoid arthritis cases might be attributable to lifestyle factors you have some power to manage

The research, which was published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, used data from two large ongoing studies: The Nurses’ Health Study and Nurses’ Health Study II. By tapping into info from both these groups, the researchers identified more than 1,200 women who had been diagnosed with RA between 1986 and 2017, as well as 107,092 who did not have RA.

To learn about how strongly RA diagnoses correlated to modifiable risk factors, the researchers focused on five factors and combined them into a “Healthy Lifestyle Index Score”:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Physical activity
  • Diet

Study participants were given a high score if they did not smoke, consumed alcohol only in moderation, had a normal BMI, were physically active, and ate a generally healthy diet (not too high in saturated fat or carbohydrates).

Not surprisingly, the researchers determined that having a higher Healthy Lifestyle Index Score was indeed correlated to a lower risk of both seropositive and seronegative RA. (Seropositive means you have certain antibodies associated with RA; seronegative means you don’t have these antibodies in your blood.)

But this study took things a step further by calculating just how much lifestyle mattered: The scientists were able to calculate that each healthy lifestyle factor someone engaged in decreased their chances of having RA by 13 percent.

They also determined that 34 percent of RA cases might be preventable by engaging in at least four out of the five above-mentioned healthy lifestyle habits.

“Our finding that a high proportion (34 percent) of RA risk in the general female population is attributable to the confluence of modifiable lifestyle factors represents something of a paradigm shift in thinking about RA and autoimmune disease risk,” they wrote. “Promotion of multiple healthy behaviors to minimize risk is an important message for the general population and in particular those at risk by virtue of family history.”

Found This Study Interesting? Get Involved

If you are diagnosed with arthritis or another musculoskeletal condition, we encourage you to participate in future studies by joining CreakyJoints’ patient research registry, ArthritisPower. ArthritisPower is the first-ever patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. Learn more and sign up here.

Hahn J, et al. Association of Healthy Lifestyle Behaviors and the Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis Among Women. Arthritis Care & Research. January 2022. doi:

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