FRIDAY, June 8, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Women who experience early menopause have a reduced risk of developing a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis, a new study suggests.
Researchers looked at 134 women with rheumatoid arthritis and found that those who had early menopause (before age 45) were only half as likely to develop severe arthritis as those who had normal/late menopause (16 percent versus 35 percent), and were more likely to develop mild/moderate arthritis (58 percent versus 20 percent).
The use of birth control pills or a history of breast-feeding were not associated with major differences in severity of rheumatoid arthritis, the study authors noted.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that's more common in women than in men. The disorder attacks joint tissues and sometimes organs, causing swelling, inflammation, fever and fatigue. It usually develops between the ages of 30 and 60 but can occur at other ages, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
The new study was presented Friday at the European League Against Rheumatism annual meeting, in Berlin.
"We already know that hormonal factors may influence the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, but this is the first study we know of that investigates the impact of menopausal age on the severity of rheumatoid arthritis," lead author Dr. Mitra Pikwer, of Skane University Hospital in Sweden, said in a league news release.
"This is an important breakthrough, both in helping us understand the impact that hormones may have on the development of this disease and potentially also in helping us predict the long-term prognosis for our patients," Pikwer added.
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. And the study only found an association between early menopause and rheumatoid arthritis severity, not a cause-and-effect relationship.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about rheumatoid arthritis.