MONDAY, Aug. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Women who regularly get some
fish in their diet may have a relatively lower risk of developing
rheumatoid arthritis, a large new study suggests.
Swedish researchers found that of the 32,000-plus women they
followed for nearly eight years, those who ate fish at least once a
week were 29 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis
than other women were.
Fatty fish -- such as salmon, mackerel and herring -- seemed to
be key, the researchers report in the
Annals of Rheumatic Diseases. Those fish contain an
inflammation-fighting fat called omega-3, and women who had a
higher omega-3 intake showed half the rheumatoid arthritis
The findings do not prove that fish consumption wards off the
painful joint disease, experts said. But there is a biological
basis to believe that fish could offer some protection: Rheumatoid
arthritis is caused by a misguided immune system attack on the
joints, which leads to chronic and widespread inflammation. Omega-3
fatty acids help ease inflammation.
"This fits a biological model that's very plausible," said Dr. Daniel Solomon, a rheumatologist and epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Solomon, who was not involved in the study, said the findings
are also in line with past research linking higher omega-3 intake
with lower disease activity in people who already have rheumatoid
What's "exciting" about the new findings, he said, is that they
suggest that a dietary measure could help curb the odds of
developing rheumatoid arthritis in the first place. "Right now, we
don't have much in the way of [rheumatoid arthritis] prevention,"
He added, though, that this study was not a clinical trial, and
"it doesn't prove causation."
Another expert agreed.
"This doesn't mean fish will prevent [rheumatoid arthritis]," said Dr. Diane Horowitz, a rheumatologist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., who was not involved in the study.
She said many factors, including genes, are believed to affect a
person's risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. And no one with
the disease should "blame themselves" because of their past eating
habits, she added.
"There is no one definitive thing that causes it," Horowitz said.
Still, she said, including fish in your diet is a generally
healthy move. "If you want to make a healthy dietary change,"
Horowitz said, "you can have a fish meal instead of meat once a
For the study, Alicja Wolk and colleagues at the Karolinska
Institute in Stockholm combed data on 32,232 middle-aged and older
Swedish women who completed detailed diet questionnaires. Over an
average of almost eight years, 205 of those women were diagnosed
with rheumatoid arthritis.
Overall, women who said they had fish at least once a week were
29 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than women
who ate fish less often. And that was with other factors -- such as
smoking, body weight and some other diet habits -- taken into
The researchers said that the link seemed to be explained by
omega-3 intake. They estimated that women who consistently got more
than 0.21 grams of omega-3 per day over the years had a 52 percent
lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis than women who consumed
And that amount is equivalent to one serving of fatty fish per
week -- or four servings of leaner fish, such as cod.
The study looked only at whole fish intake and not fish oil
supplements. "We would need more research to know if this would be
seen in people using supplements," Solomon said.
Horowitz noted that fish oil can vary in quality. Plus, whole
fish provide other nutrients important for overall health, and can
take the place of less-healthy choices, such as red meat, she
"I think it's better to focus on getting more fish in your diet," Horowitz said.
In the United States, about 1.3 million adults have rheumatoid
arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Women are at
greater risk than men, and smokers face a heightened risk.
The best way people can curb their rheumatoid arthritis risk is
to not smoke -- especially if they have a family history of the
disease, said Dr. Patience White, vice president of public health
policy and advocacy for the Arthritis Foundation.
"Fish is good for you, for many reasons," White said. "But I don't want people to think that if they eat fish, they won't develop [rheumatoid arthritis]. It's much more important not to smoke."
She added that a healthy lifestyle, including exercise and
keeping a normal weight, may not help prevent rheumatoid arthritis,
but it will put people in a better place to manage the disease if
they do develop it.
The Arthritis Foundation has more on
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