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Arthritis Afflicts Younger Americans

Arthritis used to be thought of as an inevitable part of getting older. As joints and the protective structures around them age, pain develops and people seek relief through physical therapy, medication or surgery. Yet, a new approach to calculating the prevalence of arthritis shows that more people have the condition than previously estimated.

Calculating Arthritis Prevalence

A study published last month [1] in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology concluded that the most widely used tool to determine the prevalence of arthritis in the United States – a one-question survey – grossly underestimated the number of people, especially adults younger than 65 years old, with arthritis. The one-question measurement focused solely on whether a person had been diagnosed with arthritis by a doctor. It didn’t factor in the presence of joint pain, which has been found to be a good indicator of arthritis, nor did it consider the duration of that pain.

When questions about these additional indicators are asked, the study showed that arthritis prevalence jumps from 50 million adults to 91 million adults, just over one third of the total adult population of the U.S. in 2015. Moreover, nearly one third of those adults are between the ages of 18 and 64 years, showing an increased number of younger Americans with the disease.

Lifestyle Factors

“We are definitely seeing more people with osteoarthritis – the typical ‘wear-and-tear’ type of arthritis – in our office,” said Andrew Forster, M.D. [2], an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [3], Miami Beach. He says that two competing lifestyle trends – sedentary lifestyles and increased activity for improved fitness – are impacting this shift to younger arthritis patients. “It’s no longer unusual to see people in their 40s needing hip or knee replacements due to increased body weight or obesity, or from a previous traumatic injury, as seen in young athletes,” he said.

As a result of these shifting lifestyle trends, Dr. Forster admits he suspects arthritis as a cause for joint pain more often than he did 20 years ago. “Back then, when we’d have a younger patient with joint inflammation, we typically suspected an infection,” he said. “Now, arthritis isn’t exotic in younger age groups.”

Public Health Impact

From a public health standpoint, this significant increase in arthritis patients, especially among younger age groups, means a higher number of patients seeking medical attention to alleviate pain in the short term and more surgery to treat structural damage within the joints in the long term. What’s more, Dr. Forster cautions, those who need joint replacements in their 40s or 50s will likely need those replacements repeated in 10 to 15 years, compounding the impact of this condition on public health.

With this new calculation and the awareness of the higher prevalence of arthritis, Dr. Forster says, like him, more doctors will likely look for arthritis earlier than they previously did and encourage preventive measures to slow or stop the progression of the joint degeneration.

Preventing Arthritis

But, he says that preventing arthritis can be tricky. “On one hand, you want to encourage people to exercise and maintain a healthy fitness level, but that activity can lead to the injuries that later can lead to developing arthritis, especially in the hips and knees,” he said. So, he recommends engaging daily in low-impact exercises like walking, swimming and cycling, and maintaining a healthy weight.

“Arthritis is progressive, so if you’re able to curb the impact on your joints early on, you’re likely to slow or prevent its development, he said. “Through awareness and prevention, we can effect change on these increasing arthritis numbers. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”