Potential of Lifestyle Changes for Reducing the Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis: Is an Ounce of Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure?

Clin Ther. 2019 Jul;41(7):1323-1345. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2019.04.021. Epub 2019 Jun 10.


Purpose: Lifestyle may be important in the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Therefore, changing behaviors may delay or even prevent RA onset. This article reviews the evidence basis for the associations of lifestyle factors with RA risk and considers future directions for possible interventions to reduce RA risk.

Methods: The literature was reviewed for cross-sectional studies, case-control studies, cohort studies, and clinical trials investigating potentially modifiable lifestyle factors and RA risk or surrogate outcomes on the path toward development such as RA-related autoimmunity or inflammatory arthritis. The evidence related to cigarette smoking, excess weight, dietary intake, physical activity, and dental health for RA risk were summarized.

Findings: Cigarette smoking has the strongest evidence base as a modifiable lifestyle behavior for increased seropositive RA risk. Smoking may increase seropositive RA risk through gene-environment interactions, increasing inflammation and citrullination locally in pulmonary/oral mucosa or systemically, thereby inducing RA-related autoimmunity. Prolonged smoking cessation may reduce seropositive RA risk. Evidence suggests that excess weight can increase RA risk, although this effect may differ according to sex, serologic status, and age at RA onset. TDietary intake may also affect RA risk: overall healthier patterns, high fish/omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption, and moderate alcohol intake may reduce RA risk, whereas caffeine and sugar-sweetened soda consumption might increase RA risk. The impact of physical activity is less clear, but high levels may reduce RA risk. Periodontal disease might induce citrullination and RA-related autoimmunity, but the effect of dental hygiene behaviors on RA risk is unclear. Although the effect size estimates for these lifestyle factors on RA risk are generally modest, there may be relatively large public health benefits for targeted interventions given the high prevalence of these unhealthy behaviors. With the exception of smoking cessation, the impact of behavior change of these lifestyle factors on subsequent RA risk has not been established. Nearly all of the evidence for lifestyle factors and RA risk were derived from observational studies.

Implications: There are many potentially modifiable lifestyle factors that may affect RA risk. Improving health behaviors could have large public health benefits for RA risk given the high prevalence of many of the RA risk-related lifestyle factors. However, future research is needed to establish the effects of lifestyle changes on RA risk or surrogate outcomes such as RA-related autoimmunity or inflammatory arthritis.

Keywords: lifestyle; prevention; rheumatoid arthritis; risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / prevention & control*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oral Health
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Risk Reduction Behavior*
  • Smoking Cessation