Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It’s a condition that causes the body’s immune system to attack the protective lining of the joints. This can cause cartilage and bone to break down in the body, resulting in pain, redness, and swelling. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes RA to occur. Current theories are that a combination of environmental factors and genetics may increase the risk.

Some risk factors for RA can’t be changed. These include the following:

  • Age: RA most commonly affects those between the ages of 40 and 60.
  • Family history: If you have a close family relative, such as parent or sibling, with RA, you are at increased risk for the condition.
  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop RA.

However, there are a few known risk factors that you can potentially alter to reduce your RA risk. Taking these steps may also keep RA from getting worse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking significantly increases your risk for RA. A history of smoking is associated with a 1.3 to 2.4 times increased risk. It’s the one risk factor that is in your control. Smoking can also cause symptoms of RA to advance more quickly.

If you’re a smoker, quit today. Quitting smoking will greatly reduce your chances of getting RA later in life. Some tips to help you quit include:

Make a list of the reason or reasons you’re quitting. When you are tempted to smoke, this list can remind you why it’s important to keep going. Examples of statements for the list include: “I want to prevent RA,” “I want to save money,” or “I want to improve how long I live and my quality of life.”

Evaluate any past quitting attempts and look for ways to improve. If you tried to quit before and weren’t able to successfully do so, identify why. Perhaps you had a stressful experience or went to a place that made you want to smoke. If you can figure out these behaviors, you can avoid them while you try to quit.

Tell friends and family. Encourage your friends and family to hold you accountable for stopping smoking. Seeking their support can give you encouragement as well.

Utilize medications. If you would like the extra help, consider using these U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved methods, such as nicotine patches or gum. Prescription medications are also available. They include Chantix (varenicline) and Zyban.

Call the “Lung Helpline” at 1-800-LUNGUSA. This toll-free service from the American Lung Association can help you find more ways to successfully quit.

15 Tips for quitting smoking »

Those who are overweight are at higher risk for developing RA. According to the Mayo Clinic, women who are diagnosed with RA at age 55 or younger are more likely to be overweight. To reduce the risk that you will get RA, take steps toward maintaining a healthier weight. These steps may include:

Make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Talk about what is a healthy weight goal for your height and build. Ask your doctor if there are any concerns with you adopting an exercise program or if they have a recommended diet given your overall health.

Set a reasonable weight loss goal. A safe and reasonable goal would be to lose between 1 and 1.5 pounds per week.

Practice healthier eating habits. Emphasize healthy choices like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits in your diet. Choose lean proteins like fish, turkey, and skinless chicken whenever possible. Avoid foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.

Exercise. Choose a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training. Strength training can reduce bone loss, which is a potentially serious side effect of RA. Adding a stretching routine can also help to reduce the pain and stiffness that is associated with RA. If you do currently have RA, avoid high-impact exercises during a flare-up (a period of more severe arthritis pain). Aggressive or intense exercise can worsen symptoms.

Strategies for weight loss »

Researchers have identified that exposure to some environmental pollutants earlier in life may increase RA risk. While you may not always be able to avoid exposure to environmental irritants, whenever possible avoid asbestos and/or silica. If you work with hazardous chemicals, be sure to wear proper safety gear at all times.

Protect yourself and your family from air pollution »

If you have any symptoms of RA, see a doctor as soon as possible. According to the CDC, early, aggressive treatment can delay serious side effects of RA. It can also reduce the risk of developing serious joint damage down the road. Your doctor will likely refer you to a RA specialist or rheumatologist.

Researchers are currently studying many different approaches to managing RA. Some of this research is seeking to discover how to prevent its onset in people who are at greater risk, as well as how to prevent the disease from worsening. While doctors have identified certain genetic and blood markers that could indicate a person is at greater risk for RA, they haven’t yet determined how this information plays a role in who will or won’t get it.

Researchers do know there is a very strong relationship between smoking and RA. Until more information is available on prevention strategies, it’s very important to quit smoking. This is especially true if you already have risk factors for RA.