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Aging and Joint Inflammation: Could It Be Arthritis?

Different types of arthritis can cause joint swelling

Baby boomers at risk of arthritis doing light exercises.

Different types of arthritis can cause joint swelling

Members of the baby boomer generation are now in their 50s, 60s and even 70s and you can bet they are looking forward to living longer and living well.

But as their bodies change, they will need to become educated on common diseases associated with aging and to learn how to avoid injuries that often happen as we get older.

One ailment that affects many older adults is arthritis, or joint inflammation. It is a timely topic for discussion, especially for health-conscious baby boomers.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is one of the body’s natural reactions to disease or injury and is very common. More than 54 million Americans have been diagnosed with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is more common among women and occurs frequently as people get older. The CDC estimates almost half of adults 65 and older have some form of arthritis.

Arthritis is not a single disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis and related conditions. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout are among the most common.

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.

“This is why it is vital for people to establish good relationships with their physicians so they have medical professionals to turn to when health concerns like arthritis arise,” says Scott Carstens, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley, who specializes in primary care and rheumatology.

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 such as swelling and stiffness.

When complications arise

Rheumatologists typically manage ongoing treatment for inflammatory arthritis, gout and other complicated cases. And in some cases involving advanced arthritis, orthopedic surgeons can perform joint surgery, including joint replacements.

“Education is an integral part of any treatment,” says Howard Kaye, MD, a rheumatologist at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Vista.

Dr. Kaye holds regular seminars on managing osteoarthritis at the Vista clinic, where he explains the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Both have similar symptoms but are separate conditions with different causes and treatments.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition and involves inflammation in the lining of the joints and/or other internal organs. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease marked by the breakdown of the joint’s cartilage. “Most patients who have arthritis have osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Kaye. 

“Rheumatologists are experts in diagnosing all arthritis problems as well as the origins of pain that a patient might be experiencing,” says Dr. Kaye. “Most cases turn out to be benign and can be managed by the primary care physician, but those that are complicated such as rheumatoid arthritis stay with the rheumatologist.”

Tips to reduce risks

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

Maintain a healthy weight

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

Eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet

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

Stay active, keep fit

Exercise helps develop strong muscles, which can protect and support joints.

Avoid injury

When you injure your joints, such as while playing sports or due to an accident, you can damage cartilage and cause it to wear out more quickly. 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 susceptible to arthritis, see your primary care physician. The damage from arthritis is usually progressive, and your physician can suggest treatments or lifestyle interventions that can slow the progress of arthritis. When necessary your primary care physician can also refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist.