But it’s not all genetics; environment and lifestyle factors such as diet, alcohol consumption and the use of certain medications play a role too. For both men and women, having a spouse with gout raised the risk approximately 1.65 times, compared with someone in the general population.

“Since genes and environment both contribute to risk of gout, higher genetic and environmental similarities translate to higher risk,” Dr. Kuo explains.

The study also found gender differences in the relative contribution of each risk component. Heritability (genetic factors) was responsible for 35 percent of a man’s risk, but only 17 percent of a woman’s risk. Common environmental factors were responsible for 28 percent of a man’s risk and 18.5 percent of a woman’s risk. The rest of a person’s risk is made up of non-shared, environmental factors.

Dr. Kuo says researchers do not have an explanation for the gender differences they found. It may be biological; gout is known to be significantly more common in men than women, and women tend to develop it later in life. One explanation is that the female hormone estrogen enhances the excretion of uric acid by the kidney. But lifestyle choices also tend to vary by gender. For example, women in Taiwan typically consume fewer calories and less alcohol than men, he says, and certain foods and alcohol have been linked to the development of gout.

Dr. Kuo hopes his study’s findings will lead to research looking for susceptibility genes for gout (the study points out that few genes have been found so far) as well as more epidemiologic studies in other countries to identify shared environmental factors within families that contribute to the disease. He believes his results likely hold true for people in other countries and cultures, not just the Taiwanese, he says.

Scott Zashin, MD, a rheumatologist in Dallas, agrees. “It’s something I always assumed was the case, but it’s an important study in that it helps people remember there is a family link,” he says.

Based on the results of this study, Dr. Zashin says, people with a family history of gout may want to consider regularly getting their uric acid levels checked and adjusting their lifestyle, if the results come back high.

“If your uric acid is high, you might cut back on some things that might make you develop gout,” he explains. “Gout is the one type of arthritis where there is definite evidence that watching your diet and having one that’s low in foods with high uric acid content can decrease your risk of developing gout.”