Baby Boomers: The Arthritis Epidemic


Baby boomers everywhere are now experiencing what they thought they never would: old age. Lots of the people born between 1946 and 1964 (the usual definition of a boomer) are now eligible for senior citizen discounts at restaurants. Many have grandchildren. And many have sore, creaky joints, the ultimate badge of aging.

Charlie Banks* of Billings, Montana, was at the younger end of the baby boom spectrum and when he played with his dogs or his two school-aged girls, he seemed younger still. But even at his age, he was no stranger to the pain of arthritis: This teacher and landscaper has severe bursitis in each elbow. And thanks to an incredible list of football injuries from his high school and college days, it may only be a matter of time before osteoarthritis creeps into his knees, ankles, and neck. “Someday I may need a cane,” he says incredulously.

People in Banks’ generation are putting a new face on arthritis. According to a report from the National Institutes of Health, aging baby boomers are at the center of a growing epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 54 million Americans have arthritis — and by 2030 that number is expected to jump to 67 million. If Banks ever does need a cane, he’ll be in good company.

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Protecting your joints from arthritis

Such numbers should sound a warning to boomers everywhere. Arthritis or not, now is the time to start taking care of their joints. Webb, for one, plans to trim down his football-player physique, a step that would take some of the strain off his knees, hips, and ankles.

Most of all, he intends to keep moving — without overdoing it. Whether it’s a long walk with the dogs or a bike ride with his girls, regular exercise will keep his joints flexible for as long as possible. As muscles become stronger and tendons more limber, the pain and stiffness start to fade.

For patients with osteoarthritis, there’s another important benefit of exercise. Simply put, regular activity provides lifeblood to the cartilage that cushions joints. Unlike most tissues in the body, cartilage doesn’t receive nutrients from the bloodstream. Instead, it gets nourishment from fluid (called synovial fluid) in the joints. When a joint moves, the fluid sloshes around, giving the cartilage a healthy dose of oxygen and other vital substances. As an added bonus, regular exercise encourages the body to make more synovial fluid.

Like Banks, most baby boomers aren’t ready to take their advancing age lying down. Instead, they’re running and swimming and shooting jump shots. According to a recent report from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, today’s boomers are much more active than previous generations. And that’s part of the problem.

While a sensible amount of exercise offers powerful protection against arthritis, many baby boomers are getting too much of a good thing. Nicholas DiNubile, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and best-selling author, summed up the situation at a conference of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Stiff joints, aching muscles — many of these ‘aging pains’ are actually due to overuse. Quite often we find that baby boomers have participated in a sports activity years ago as young adults and think they can resume the same activity in the 40s or 50s without any modifications.”

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