By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, June 5 (HealthDay News) -- People who drink alcohol regularly may cut their risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a new study finds.
Alcohol has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and now this new study shows drinking may also reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by up to 50 percent. This finding underscores the importance of lifestyle factors in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, the study authors said.
"Moderate alcohol consumption is not deleterious and may in some contexts be beneficial concerning risk for future onset of rheumatoid arthritis," said lead researcher Henrik Kallberg, of the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
"In addition, our paper underlines that smoking may trigger development of rheumatoid arthritis," Kallberg added.
The report was published in the June 4 online edition of the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
For the research, Kllberg's team collected data on 2,750 men and women who took part in two studies of rheumatoid arthritis. Among these people, 1,650 had rheumatoid arthritis.
All the people in the study were asked about their lifestyles, including how much they smoked and drank. In addition, their blood was analyzed to check for genetic risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis.
The researchers found that both men and women who drank regularly were less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, those who drank the most cut their risk for developing the disease by 50 percent, compared with those who drank the least.
"Drinking more than three drinks per week is associated with a 50 percent decrease for developing rheumatoid arthritis," Kallberg said.
Moreover, in people with antibodies to a group of proteins involved in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, drinking alcohol also cut the risk of developing the disease. And in most smokers who had genetic risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis, drinking also reduced the risk of the disease. Smoking is a major risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis, and that risk is increased for those with a genetic susceptibility to disease, the researchers noted.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system uses its own antibodies to attack joints, causing pain and swelling and loss of function in joints. The causes of the disease aren't known, but researchers suspect there is a strong genetic component as well as lifestyle risks.
Dr. John Hardin, the chief science officer for the Arthritis Foundation, said he wasn't surprised by the finding that alcohol could help prevent rheumatoid arthritis.
"This study brings attention to the fact that there are environmental factors that trigger rheumatoid arthritis," he said.
There are a variety of environmental factors that can either promote the disease or help prevent it, Hardin said. "What this means to me is that things that cause an inflammatory state in the body are a hazard requiring rheumatoid arthritis," he said.
"We know that smoking is one of the things associated with a systemic inflammatory response," Hardin said. "We also know that alcohol is a mild anti-inflammatory."
Hardin was cautious, however, about recommending drinking to stave off rheumatoid arthritis. "This study should not be construed as a license to go drink, because there are serious hazards associated with excess alcohol intake," he said.
To learn more about rheumatoid arthritis, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.