Perhaps your mother has trouble gardening now because of the rheumatoid arthritis in her hands. Or maybe your brother is recovering from a knee arthroscopy—for the second time.
In addition to your concern for family members with arthritis, you may be wondering if you should be concerned for yourself as well. Are you destined to have arthritis, just like them?
The answer is complicated:
Your genes can raise your risk for arthritis, but that doesn't automatically sentence you to a future that includes arthritis.
Genes and osteoarthritis
There's no single known cause for osteoarthritis (OA), but research suggest it's a combination of heredity and lifestyle factors.
Multiple studies among families and twins have shown a family connection when it comes to risk for OA. More recently, studies that examined the genetics of large groups of people have pinpointed as many as 5 portions of genes that people with OA have in common. These genes control factors such as bone growth and immune response.1
But because there are so many variables (which family member has OA, which gene variation you may share, which joint is affected by OA), there's currently no way to know your exact genetic risk for osteoarthritis.
Genes and rheumatoid arthritis
Just as with OA, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other types of arthritis caused by faulty immune system response seem to have a variety of causes, including heredity, environment, and hormones.
However, the genetic connection for RA is much more established. Specifically, a gene called HLA-DR4 is carried by nearly 70% of those with RA; only 20% of the general population have it.
The genetic link is even more pronounced for ankylosing spondylitis: The gene HLA-B27 is found in more than 90% of people with ankylosing spondylitis.
4 steps to prevent arthritis
Despite this link between genes and arthritis risk, doctors very rarely give patients a genetic test. There are so many factors in making an arthritis diagnosis—symptom analysis, physical exam, medical history, blood tests—that the presence or absence of a gene marker is just not enough information to confirm whether someone has (or will have) arthritis.
However, you can take steps to improve your chances of delaying or avoiding the symptoms of arthritis—especially if you suspect that you have extra hereditary risk:
- Stay active. Mobile joints—supported by strong muscles—are healthy joints. Focus on activities that include both aerobic activity and strength training.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight has been shown to raise risk for OA.
- Quit smoking. Long-term smoking has been shown to affect risk for RA.
- Exercise wisely. Joint injuries and overuse can lead to OA. Warm up muscles before exercising, and vary workouts so joints don't experience overuse.
- Chapman K, Valdes AM. Genetic factors in OA pathogenesis. Bone. 2012;51(2):258-64.