Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis Doubles for Female Smokers, Study Finds

Women who smoke have a much higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a new study finds. (Photo: Getty I …If people need another reason to quit smoking, researchers in Sweden have one that might finally make women kick the habit: A new study shows that women who smoke even just one cigarette per day double their risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable disease that inflames and eventually erodes a person's joints.

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The increased risk for developing the painful joint disease was the same whether women smoked one or as many as seven cigarettes per day, head researcher Daniela Di Giuseppe and her team found. The risk shot to 70 percent for women who smoked between one and five packs per day. And while quitting improved the odds somewhat, even former smokers had a higher risk of rheumatoid arthritis compared to women who had never picked up a cigarette.

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"Compared to never smokers, the risk was still significantly elevated 15 years after smoking cessation," the researchers wrote in their study. Among former smokers, however, the risk decreased over time: Women who stopped smoking 15 years earlier had a 30 percent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis compared to smokers who had quit just one year before the data was collected.

The study, published this week in the journal "Arthritis Research & Therapy," gathered data from 34,101 Swedish women between the ages of 54 and 89. Just 219 participants reported having rheumatoid arthritis; 80 of them were current smokers, 60 of them were former smokers, and the rest had never smoked.

The study does have a few loopholes. It did not look at the association between smoking and rheumatoid arthritis in young women, even though women between the ages of 25 and 50 are most likely to get the disease in general; instead, it focused on women age 54 and older who already had the disease. It also did not look for a link between rheumatoid arthritis and smoking in men at all, making it impossible to determine whether smoking was the only factor to increase the risk for people in general.

Along with painful joint inflammation, people with rheumatoid arthritis also have triple the risk of heart attack and higher chances of developing certain types of cancer. According to a Reuters report, nearly one percent of the U.S. population  — about 3,139,140 people — are affected by the debilitating, incurable disease.

"This prospective study highlights that even light cigarette smoking is associated with increased risk of RA in women," the researchers wrote in their report. "Smoking cessation may reduce, though not remove, this risk."

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