Arthritis in Older Adults

The term arthritis refers to more than 100 diseases and conditions affecting the joints. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. Other forms of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and lupus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) an estimated 54.4 million adults have been diagnosed by a physician with osteoarthritis. By the year 2040 the number of adults with arthritis will increase to 78 million.

Overall, arthritis increases with age, especially after 50 and is more prevalent in women (24%) than in men (18%). Arthritis affects quality of life, the ability to function independently, and is a leading cause of disability in the United States. Unfortunately, arthritis commonly occurs with other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity which makes it difficult to for people to manage.

Types of Arthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) begins when cartilage (the tissue that cushions bones in a joint) begins to break down and wears away. As the cartilage thins, the bones rub together, flexibility is reduced, and the joint swells. OA often develops in the hips, knees, neck, low back, or small joints of the hands. It is degenerative and can be quite painful. OA usually develops in joints that are injured by repeated overuse from performing a particular task, or playing a favorite sport. Excess body weight or obesity can also cause OA. One extra pound of body weight can be the equivalent of carrying 5 pounds on certain joints–especially the knees and hips.

Symptoms of OA include mild to severe pain, tenderness, stiffness, and loss of flexibility in the joints. OA is usually treated through physical activity, over-the-counter, and prescription pain medications, physical therapy, and supportive devices. Exercise often reduces symptoms of OA and can be one of the best treatments for the condition. Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease in which a person’s own immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake. This process causes  inflammation (painful swelling) in the affected parts of the body. RA mainly attacks the joints, usually many joints at once. RA commonly affects the hands, wrists, and knees. In RA, the lining of a joint becomes inflamed, causing damage to joint tissue. This tissue damage can cause long-lasting or chronic pain, unsteadiness (lack of balance), and deformity (misshapenness). RA can also affect other tissues throughout the body and cause problems in organs such as the lungs, heart, and eyes.

According to the CDC, signs and symptoms of RA include:

  • Pain or aching in more than one joint.
  • Stiffness in more than one joint.
  • Tenderness and swelling in more than one joint.
  • The same symptoms on both sides of the body (such as in both hands or both knees).
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Fatigue, or tiredness.
  • Weakness.


RA can be effectively treated and managed with medication(s) and self-management strategies. Treatment for RA usually includes the use of medications which slow disease and prevent joint deformity, called disease-modifying anti rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biological response modifiers (biologicals).  In addition RA can be managed through exercise which can relieve pain and improve joint function. Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.


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