(ĐTĐ) - Some things in life seem to be more gender-specific to women: scrapbooking, stretch marks, book groups, addiction to Desperate Housewives. Unfortunately, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is also one of them.
Anyone can get RA, but from the number of people who get rheumatoid arthritis to how it affects them, the disease can be different for women than it is for men. The more you know about the differences, experts say, the better you can deal with your own RA.
Fast Facts About Women and RA
Though scientists don't know what causes RA, they do know it hits women harder:
More women than men have rheumatoid arthritis. About 1.3 million American adults have RA. Nearly three times more women have the disease than men.
Rheumatoid arthritis tends to strike women 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 be in remission. A study released in 2009 showed that women are about half as likely to be in remission. In the study, 17% of women were in remission compared to 30% of men.
Recent studies have revealed other important differences for women with RA.
RA Is on the Rise in Women
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic reported in 2008 that while RA appears to have been on the decline from 1955 and 1994 in the U.S., that no longer appears to be the case for women. The study found that from 1995 to 2005 the number of women who got RA increased by nearly 50% over the number that got it in the previous decade. RA rates among men remained stable.
RA May Be More Severe in Women
In a large study released in 2009, researchers found that women with RA reported more symptoms -- and more severe symptoms -- even when they appeared to have the same level of the disease as men. Women also did not respond as well to the same treatment -- both in terms of what their doctors could measure, like swollen joints, and in terms of how they described their symptoms.
Why the difference? Researchers aren't sure. One theory is that women may have a more severe form of RA. Another is that that muscle mass may be a factor -- men tend to have more muscle mass than women. Some scientists speculate that the medicines used to treat RA may affect women and men differently.
The Role of Hormones in RA
It's likely that hormones play a large role in the differences in RA between men and women. Women often develop the disease at times when their sex hormones are changing, such as after pregnancy or around menopause. Rheumatoid arthritis also tends to go into remission during pregnancy and often flares again after delivery.
Breastfeeding lowers the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women. A 2004 study showed that women who breastfed for two years or more cut their risk of rheumatoid arthritis in half.
Right now, RA is basically treated the same way in men and women. But as research uncovers more information about the role that hormones and other factors play in RA, scientists may be able to develop treatments more specifically targeted at women.
What the Differences Mean For You Now
What's the most important thing you can do as a woman with RA? Don't suffer in pain or put off treatment. Early, aggressive treatment can halt or slow the disease and prevent joint damage and health complications, such as osteoporosis and heart disease. The idea is to knock RA into remission before it progresses and changes the quality of your life.
Maintaining a healthy weight, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly are vital to managing RA as well as bone and heart health. Eating a well-balanced diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables may help you manage RA symptoms.
If you tend to take care of others before yourself, give yourself permission to be "selfish." Rest your joints when they are inflamed. And don't be afraid to lean on family or friends -- or your book group -- to help out when you're fatigued and help keep your spirits up.