CDC: Arthritis Rampant, Growing, and Costly

Finds 1 in 4 has disease, eating up 1% of GDP

THURSDAY, May 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- One in every four U.S. adults has doctor-diagnosed arthritis, and the problem is only likely to get bigger as baby boomers age and as Americans get fatter, new government figures show.

In 1997, the last year for which numbers were available, the costs for this disease totaled $86.2 billion -- a staggering 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

"The money used to treat arthritis and from lost earnings is equivalent to a chronic recession," said Louise Murphy, an epidemiologist under contract to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the authors of new findings published in the May 14 edition of the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The report is the first to look at arthritis prevalence state by state; in all, 30 states were examined.

According to the CDC, 49 million American adults reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis in 2001, while another 21 million reported chronic joint symptoms (CJS).

"It's an enormous problem," said Kevin Brennan, senior vice president of health policy at the Arthritis Foundation in Washington, D.C. "People with arthritis still die 10 years sooner than someone who does not have arthritis. We have a lot of work to do."

Arthritis is the leading cause of physical disability in the United States. Although there are more than 100 different types of arthritis, the most common is osteoarthritis, which is associated with aging, obesity and physical trauma to the joints.

Women and older adults are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis. But the condition can be largely prevented and treated.

"There are a lot of self-help things people can do for that -- exercise programs, aquatic exercise to take stress off joints, trying to lose weight, strengthening the muscles, and there are medicines that you can take for that type of pain," said Dr. Leonard Serebro, senior staff rheumatologist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans.

Whether Americans are actually doing these things is another story.

The study authors looked at responses to questions about arthritis that were included in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) from 30 states.

Participants, reached in a random telephone survey, were asked, "Have you ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that you have some form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia?" Those who answered yes were considered to have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.

Doctor-diagnosed arthritis carries more weight than self-reported arthritis, Serebro pointed out.

The prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis ranged from 17.8 percent in Hawaii to 35.8 percent in Alabama. The median was 27.6 percent. Older people and women were more likely to have arthritis in all states.

Possible arthritis, meaning self-reported arthritis not diagnosed by a doctor, ranged from 10.3 percent in Hawaii to 21.3 percent in Iowa, with a median of 17.3 percent.

Wyoming had the lowest arthritis-related costs ($121 million), while California had the highest ($8.3 billion).

Future trends could go either way, depending on how well Americans take care of themselves. On the one hand, said Dr. Chad Helmick, one of the study authors and a medical epidemiologist with the Arthritis Program, "the population is getting older and we also have an obesity epidemic occurring." Both of those factors mean a higher risk for osteoarthritis.

On the other hand, Helmick added, "people can change their behavior to be physically active and to be a healthy weight."

"There are known interventions and they are underutilized," Brennan pointed out. "We're still not reaching enough people with an important awareness message. We're not getting enough folks diagnosed and aggressively treated."

More information

The Arthritis Foundation has more on how to limit the disease's impact and on programs and services.

SOURCES: Kevin Brennan, senior vice president, health policy, Arthritis Foundation, Washington, D.C.; Chad Helmick, M.D., medical epidemiologist, Arthritis Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Louise Murphy, epidemiologist, Arthritis Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Leonard Serebro, M.D., senior staff rheumatologist, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans; May 14, 2004, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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