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Sunshine May Reduce Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is one of a number of autoimmune diseases that cause the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells in error. The causes of the condition are not fully understood, but rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation, pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. Affected joints can also lose their function. Although any joint in the body can be affected, rheumatoid arthritis typically most affects the joints in the wrist and fingers. Around 300,000 people in the UK are affected by this condition, which is the UK’s second most common type of arthritis. Women are three times more likely to be affected than men. The disease, which can often start in middle age, is most common in older people, although young adults and children are sometimes affected. As with other autoimmune diseases, the symptoms can sometimes flare up and get worse or go into remission when they improve.

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Recent Research

A recent US study on 200,000 women suggested that there is a link between exposure to sunlight and the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin D, which is produced when the skin is exposed to UV radiation, appears to protect against the disease, although further research is needed. Low levels of vitamin D have previously been identified as possible risk factors for other disorders of the immune system such as multiple sclerosis. Ongoing research will hopefully improve treatment options for sufferers of arthritis, but in the meantime moderate exposure to the sunshine is recommended. The medical director of Arthritis Research UK, Professor Alan Silman, suggests that exposing the face and arms to the sunshine for up to 15 minutes a day in the summer months will keep vitamin D levels topped up. Although vitamin D has not been identified as a useful treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, there are strong reasons to believe it plays some part in preventing its occurrence. The president of the British Society for Rheumatology, Dr Chris Deighton, has said that the study was interesting and that it sheds more light on how environmental factors affect the likelihood of getting rheumatoid arthritis.

Practical Considerations

The use of sun protection such as sun block will prevent the UV rays from reaching the skin, and this may be why younger women in the study who are educated about the risks of over-exposure to the sun showed less benefit than older women. The risks of over-exposure to UV rays are well documented, and care should be taken not to stay out in the sun too long without protection due to the risk of burning and the possible development of skin cancer. However, the benefits for older people of time outdoors and moderate exposure to the sun include enhanced feelings of well-being as well as the vitamin D they produce, so sensible exposure does seem to be advantageous.

Older people, and particularly those in long-term care, can sometimes miss out on the opportunity to get out in the sun, but Balcombe Care Homes have lovely facilities and grounds where residents can enjoy time outside. Enjoying the great outdoors – in any capacity – is key to a healthy lifestyle.

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