Background: The geographic variation in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) incidence in the United States is unknown.
Methods: We studied residential region from January 1, 1921, to May 31, 1976, and RA risk in a prospective cohort of women, the Nurses' Health Study. Information on state of residence was collected at baseline in 1976 (when participants were aged 30-55 years) and on state of residence at birth, at age 15 years, and at age 30 years in 1992. Among 83,546 participants reporting residence for all 4 time points, 706 incident RA cases from June 1, 1976, to May 31, 2004, were confirmed by screening questionnaire and record review for American College of Rheumatology criteria. Residential region was classified as West, Midwest, mid-Atlantic, New England, and Southeast. Multivariate Cox proportional hazards regression models were used to assess relationships between region and RA risk, adjusting for age, smoking, body mass index, parity, breastfeeding, postmenopausal status, postmenopausal hormone use, father's occupation, race, and physical activity. Analyses were performed in participants who lived in the same regions, or moved, over time.
Results: Compared with those in the West, women in New England had a 37% to 45% elevated risk of RA in multivariate models at each time point (eg, state of residence in 1976: rate ratio [RR], 1.42; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.10-1.82). In analyses of women who lived in the same region at birth, age 15 years, and age 30 years, living in the Midwest was associated with greater risk (RR, 1.47; 95% CI, 1.05-2.05), as was living in New England (RR, 1.40; 95% CI, 0.98-2.00). Compared with living in the West at birth, age 15 years, and age 30 years, RA risk was higher in the East.
Conclusions: In this large cohort of US women, significant geographic variation in incident RA existed after controlling for confounders. Potential explanations include regional variation in behavioral factors, climate, environmental exposures, RA diagnosis, and genetic factors.