Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a baffling disease, with no known cure and no firmly established cause. New research, however, has made the surprising discovery that regular drinking of alcohol can lower a person's risk of developing the disease by as much as 50%.

A group of Scandinavian researchers made this discovery after examining data from more than 2750 subjects in a pair of studies, which were designed to identify risk factors for RA.

It turned out that those who drank alcohol had a much lower risk of developing RA.

Researchers asked subjects about their lifestyle, including their drinking habits and tobacco use.

It turned out that those who drank alcohol had a much lower risk of developing RA. This is consistent with other research that has shown an association between alcohol consumption and reduced risk of cardiovascular and other diseases that involve inflammation.

Unlike studies that have shown cardiovascular and other benefits from light to moderate drinking, however, this one showed that the more alcohol people drank, the lower their risk.

This was equally true for men and women.

Previous studies have shown that smoking is a major risk factor for developing RA, particularly for those who carry these genetic variants. Drinking alcohol cut the risk most in smokers with certain genetic risk factors for RA.

This research supports the idea that lifestyle plays a key role in the development of the disease; quitting smoking remains the best known way to lower your chances of developing RA.

This study was published June 5, 2008, ahead of print, in the online edition of Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.