Arthritis and Aging: What’s the Connection?

Age-related joint disease can be slowed with proper treatment

An older woman grabs her wrist. She's in pain due to arthritis.

Age-related joint disease can be slowed with proper treatment

As we age, we tend to become more aware of common diseases associated with aging. One chronic disease that affects many older adults is arthritis, which causes joint pain, stiffness and swelling.

Arthritis is one of the body’s natural reactions to disease or injury and is very common, especially as we get older. The good news is that it can be managed.

“If you suspect you may have arthritis, your primary care physician can do an exam and order tests and based on the findings can determine if you have the condition and refer you to a specialist if necessary,” says Yawen Cheng, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.

Who is at risk for arthritis?

More than 50 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2040, the number is expected to grow to nearly 80 million.

Almost half of adults 65 and older have some form of arthritis, according to the CDC. Arthritis and other rheumatic conditions are also a leading cause of work disability among U.S. adults.

Arthritis is more common in people with other chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

What are types of arthritis?

Arthritis is not a single disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and the risk of developing it increases with age. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease marked by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. It occurs most frequently in the hands, hips and knees.

Rheumatoid arthritis, gout and fibromyalgia are other common forms of arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake, causing inflammation in the affected parts of the body.

Most types of arthritis are more common in women. Gout is more common in men.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

Arthritis diagnosis often begins with a primary care physician performing a physical exam, and when necessary, running blood tests and imaging scans to get to the source of the problem.

“It’s vital for patients to establish good relationships with their physicians so they have medical professionals to turn to when health concerns like arthritis arise,” says Dr. Cheng.

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

Four tips to help reduce risk of arthritis

People can take steps to reduce their risk of developing the disease, including:

1.   Maintain a healthy weight

Losing excess weight is a lifestyle adjustment that can alleviate pain and slow progression of arthritis.

“Excess weight puts an extra strain on joints, which can lead to arthritis,” says Dr. Cheng.

Extra weight can put more stress on weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees.

2.   Eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet

A healthy eating plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low fat milk and milk products.

“Consuming foods rich in calcium and vitamin D will help to strengthen bones and muscles,” says Dr. Cheng.

Vitamin D rich foods include seafood, such as cod and wild-caught salmon, fortified milk and eggs. Yogurt, sardines, beans and almonds are high in calcium and other nutrients.

3.   Stay active, keep fit

Arthritis is more prevalent among adults who are not physically active. Exercise helps develop strong muscles, which can protect and support joints.

Adults should aim for 150 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity exercises, like brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activities, such as cycling over 10 mph.

Adults should aim for at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities and balance-enhancing exercises, like one-foot standing. If you cannot do 150 minutes a week, be as active as your health permits.

4.   Prevent injury

When you injure your joints while playing sports or in an accident, you can damage cartilage and cause it to wear out more quickly. Knee arthritis in young people is often the result of a previous injury.

Avoid injury by using the proper safety equipment when playing sports and learn correct exercise techniques.

When to see your physician

If you think you are at risk for arthritis, consult your primary care physician, your first line of protection against illness.

Arthritis typically advances gradually but your physician can recommend lifestyle changes that can slow the progress of arthritis. If needed, your physician can refer you to a rheumatologist.

When complications arise

Rheumatologists specialize in arthritis. They typically manage treatment for inflammatory arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and other complicated cases.

In some cases involving advanced arthritis, joint surgery, an orthopedic surgeon may perform joint surgery, including joint replacements.

Related tags: