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.