Risky Business of Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis risk factors include age and obesity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Some people expect to experience aches, pains and reduced mobility in certain areas of their body as they grow older. For many people, these aches and pains are the result of osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type of arthritis.

In OA, the cartilage separating and protecting joints begins to break down, leading to symptoms like swelling, pain and stiffness. Any joint can potentially be affected, but common areas include the hips, knees, hands and spine.

OA is an incredibly common condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are 27 million adult Americans currently coping with OA, and that one in two adults will get some form of the condition at some point in their life.

So if around half of people are likely to develop OA, what separates those who get it and those who don’t? Who is at a greater risk?

To Modify or Not to Modify

The CDC separates risk factors for osteoarthritis into two categories, non-modifiable (meaning they are inherent and unchangeable) and modifiable (meaning people can have some influence on these factors in their lives).

The most well-known non-modifiable risk factor is age. Though the condition can occur earlier, the CDC reports that “the prevalence of OA increases rapidly beginning at age 45.”

As the Arthritis Foundation (AF) explains it, “Incidences of osteoarthritis increase with age due to simple ‘wear and tear’ on the joints – the older you are, the more you have used them. However, that doesn’t mean OA is an inevitable part of aging because not everyone gets it.”

Gender is another non-modifiable risk factor for OA, though it plays an interesting role. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), “Before age 45, more men than women have osteoarthritis; after age 45, it is more common in women.”

Because OA is more likely to set in after age 45, this translates to a slightly greater risk in women. The CDC reports that 60 percent of all arthritis patients are female.

Genetics may also play a role in someone’s likelihood of developing OA, and someone cannot change the genes they inherit.

“Genetics plays a role in the development and progression of osteoarthritis, particularly in the hands,” says AF. “Inherited bone abnormalities that affect joint shape or stability or defects that cause cartilage to form abnormally can lead to OA.”

Even though it is not possible to change these non-modifiable risk factors, it is a good idea to be educated about their relation to osteoarthritis. By being vigilant and knowing one’s risk, patients and their doctors can be on the lookout for early signs that OA is developing.

Making Changes

Thankfully, there are risk factors for osteoarthritis that can be influenced by behavior and lifestyle, giving people power to reduce their risk in these areas.

Obesity is one of the major modifiable risk factors for OA, especially in regards to the health of the knees and other lower body joints.

These joints (particularly the knees) are responsible for carrying the burden of excess weight. As AF explains it, every pound gained basically amounts to an extra four pounds of pressure on the knees and six times the amount of pressure on the hip joints.

Furthermore, obesity could be connected to OA in other ways than body weight and pressure alone.

“Recent research suggests that excess body fat produces chemicals that travel throughout the body and cause joint damage, which would mean obesity plays a systemic, not just a mechanical, role in osteoarthritis onset,” says AF.

Injuries and overuse of joints can also lead to an increased risk of OA.

Sometimes these instances of overuse are found in athletes or people whose work requires them to perform repetitive motions for long periods of time (for example, knee-bending in landscape work or typing in office work).

The range of trauma that could be related to OA is quite wide. According to the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing (DHA), “Joint injuries associated with increased risk of osteoarthritis include dislocation, contusion, fracture and tears of the menisci or ligaments. Joint injury damages the tissues within the joint which can increase the stress on the cartilage.”

Avoiding these injuries or cutting back on constant repetitive motion may help lower the risk of OA.

DHA also recommends that people ensure that their bodies are receiving proper and balanced nutrients, especially in regards to calcium and vitamin D.

“Low calcium intake is associated with low bone mineral density. Vitamin D is then required to help the body to absorb the calcium and regulate bone formation,” reports DHA.

Calcium must be obtained through diet, and vitamin D can come from diet and from sunlight. Doctors can work with individual patients to make sure they are getting a good balance of nutrients.

Staying Alert

It is important to stay alert to signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis, including persistent aching, stiffness or pain in the joints.

DHA stresses that “Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment is essential to delay progression of musculoskeletal conditions and the resultant pain, disability and loss of independence.”

Knowledge of risk factors can function to keep people alert, educated and dispel a myth of inevitability.

“Many people with OA are not being proactive because of the misconception that arthritis is an inevitable part of aging and that the aches and pains are simply something you must learn to live with,” reports the CDC.

Being aware of the risks for developing osteoarthritis, addressing the risks that can be modified and working with doctors at onset of first signs and symptoms can help people stay active, mobile and flexible as they age.

Review Date: 
March 19, 2013