Aging and Joint Inflammation

Understanding how arthritis affects people as they age

Four older individuals walk along the beach with happy smiling faces.

Understanding how arthritis affects people as they age

by Scott Carstens, MD

Members of the baby boomer generation are beginning to reach their 50s and 60s and seniors are living longer than ever, causing a large influx of older men and women in our society.

As their bodies change, there is a need for them to become educated on common diseases associated with age and to learn how to avoid injuries that often happen as we get older.

Understanding arthritis in aging citizens

One ailment that affects many aging citizens is arthritis, or joint inflammation. As many as 70 million Americans have some form of arthritis, which is one of the body’s natural reactions to disease or injury. Arthritis affects people of all ages, but is much more common in older adults.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout being three of the more common.

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that is characterized by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. Rheumatoid arthritis involves inflammation in the lining of the joints and/or other internal organs. Gout causes sudden, severe attacks of pain and swelling in some joints, most commonly the big toe.

Each type of arthritis can have different symptoms. Some types do not have any symptoms outside the joint; however, other forms cause fatigue, fever and a rash. Most types of arthritis show signs of joint inflammation, such as swelling and stiffness.

Health decisions to reduce arthritis risk

Although arthritis is not preventable, there are steps people can take to reduce their risk of developing the disease.

Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a well balanced, nutritious diet are two of these steps. Excess weight puts an extra strain on joints, which can lead to arthritis. Consuming foods rich in calcium and vitamin D will help with weight control and will also help strengthen bones and muscles. Maintaining reasonable physical activity and fitness levels is another way to help prevent arthritis. Exercise helps develop strong muscles, which can protect and support joints.

People with jobs that require repetitive movements or heavy lifting should use joint-protecting devices and techniques to ensure proper lifting and posture. This will help reduce stress on the joints and help avoid injury, both of which can lead to the development of arthritis.

Common orthopedic injuries in older adults

In addition to arthritis, there are several orthopedic injuries that commonly occur in older adults, such as hip fractures. In fact, women over the age of 65 have a one-in-five chance of fracturing their hip.

The aging process also takes a toll on shoulders and knees. The shoulder becomes more susceptible to damage as a person’s bones and muscles become weaker, and knee injuries often result when older people apply excess amounts of physical stress.

Ruptured disks, spinal column damage, neck strains, and spinal stenosis are also more common as we age. Spinal stenosis — the narrowing of the spinal cord passageway — most often results from a gradual, degenerative aging process, although it can be caused by other problems as well. This disorder, characterized by severe pain and numbing sensations in the body, is most common in people over 50.

Learning how to prevent and treat these diseases and injuries, as well as scheduling annual physical exams, complete with blood tests and urinalyses, can help an aging population enjoy greater independence and a higher quality of life. It is vital for people to establish relationships with their physicians so they have medical professionals to turn to when health concerns do arise.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Scott Carstens, M.D., Scripps Center for Executive Health.