Home Health Arthritis is Common, Especially Among Seniors: Understanding Its Causes

Arthritis is Common, Especially Among Seniors: Understanding Its Causes


Few medical conditions seem as inevitable with aging as arthritis. It’s a common assumption, supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which estimates that over 58 million adults in the United States are affected by this condition. “Arthritis is a prevalent condition that varies in severity and can affect people of all ages, but it is more common in the elderly,” says Dr. John Whyte, a practicing physician in Washington D.C. and the chief medical officer at WebMD.

Fortunately, arthritis is generally a manageable condition, though some individuals are more susceptible than others. Here’s what you need to know about its causes and treatments.

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is characterized by “inflammation and destruction in one or more joints, causing pain and stiffness and resulting in limited range of motion,” says Whyte. Those affected usually experience swelling and tenderness in their joints.

Despite being commonly referred to as a single disease, there are over 100 different types of arthritis, with osteoarthritis being the most prevalent. “About half of all Americans develop osteoarthritis in at least one joint during their lifetimes,” notes Dr. Ahmed Elghawy, a rheumatologist at Cleveland Clinic.

Osteoarthritis results from the wear and tear of joint cartilage. In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis, another common type, is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints.

What Causes Arthritis?

Due to its wear-and-tear nature, certain groups are more likely to develop arthritis. For example, individuals who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for osteoarthritis because of the extra strain on their joints, explains Dr. Brent Lambson, a board-certified sports medicine physician at Revere Health Orthopedics in Utah.

Arthritis can also develop due to infections or injuries that disrupt joint function. Personal habits like smoking can predispose an individual to rheumatoid arthritis, says Lambson. Gender also plays a role, as women are more commonly affected than men.

The elderly are at the highest risk for arthritis due to the natural degeneration of joint cartilage over time, says Whyte. This is primarily due to lifelong joint use and age-related cartilage deterioration.

Individuals with autoimmune conditions may be more susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system targets the joints, causing inflammation, pain, swelling, warmth, and stiffness, says Dr. Vivek Nagaraja, a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

Additionally, genetics can play a significant role. “There appears to be a genetic component to arthritis,” says Elghawy. “If half of your family members develop arthritis in certain areas, it is more likely to happen to you in that area.”

How to Treat Arthritis

Knowing the symptoms to watch for is crucial. “If you experience pain, swelling, stiffness, or increased warmth or redness over your joints, it is time to seek help from your primary care provider,” advises Nagaraja. A doctor can diagnose the type of arthritis and recommend a management plan, usually involving x-rays, other imaging, and blood tests, says Whyte.

Initial treatments often focus on lifestyle modifications, such as quitting smoking, managing weight, getting regular exercise, and practicing proper body mechanics, says Nagaraja.

Treatment options vary depending on the type of arthritis and can include physical therapy, bracing, surgery, or medications like anti-inflammatories, steroids, antiviral medication, or disease-modifying drugs.

With proper medical attention and self-care, “those with arthritis are often able to continue their regular activities of daily living,” says Elghawy.