A number of seniors suffer from rheumatoid arthritis but may be unaware of their condition.

Rheumatoid arthritis can occur at any age, but it more commonly occurs between the ages of 40 and 60.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that not only affects the joints, but may also attack tissue in the skin, lungs, eyes and blood vessels. People with the disease may feel sick, tired and sometimes feverish.

It is classified as an autoimmune disease, which occurs when the immune system turns against parts of the body that it is designed to protect.

According to the National Institute of Health, research suggests that a person’s genetic makeup is an important part of the picture, but not the whole story. Some evidence shows that infectious agents, such as viruses and bacteria, may trigger rheumatoid arthritis in people with an inherited tendency to develop the disease. However, a specific agent or agents are not yet known.

Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than men – approximately two to three times as many women than men have the disease – and smoking cigarettes increases a person’s risk, while quitting smoking reduces the risk.

Researchers are exploring why so many more women than men develop rheumatoid arthritis, and they are studying complex relationships between the hormonal, nervous and immune systems in rheumatoid arthritis.

A person’s family history is important because if a family member has rheumatoid arthritis, there is an increased risk of the disease. Doctors don’t believe you can “inherit” the disease, instead they believe you can inherit a predisposition to it.

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include joint pain, joint swelling, joints that are tender to the touch, red and puffy hands, firm bumps of tissue under the skin of the arms (rheumatoid nodules), fatigue, morning stiffness that may last for hours, fever, and weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The smaller joints are affected first – joints in wrists, hands, ankles and feet. As the disease progresses, the shoulders, elbows, knees, hips, jaw and neck can become involved. In most cases, symptoms occur symmetrically – in the same joints on both sides of the body.

Symptoms may also come and go, or vary in severity. Periods of increased disease activity – called flare-ups or flares – alternate with periods of relative remission, during which the swelling, pain, difficulty sleeping and weakness fade or disappear.

The fact that the symptoms come and go and vary in severity, and sufferers have difficulty sleeping can lead people to think they are suffering from something else, since the symptoms may be similar to other illnesses.

According to seniorjournal.com, a study has found the treatment of senior citizens with rheumatoid arthritis is unacceptable, and that wide variations were found in Medicare managed care-patients’ receipt of recommended drug therapy.

According to the Web site, an analysis of data from more than 90,000 Medicare managed care-enrollees who received care for rheumatoid arthritis finds that more than one-third did not receive the recommended treatment with a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug, and that receipt varied by demographic factors, socio-economic status, geographic location and health plan, according to a study in the Feb. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).