Arthritis prevalence may increase faster than previously believed as our population not only ages, but experiences increasing levels of obesity.

Linking risk factors to early-onset arthritis

Imagine if just walking around or getting up out of a chair was painful. This is the case for many people with arthritis – a group of joint diseases that cause pain and stiffness

By far the most common kind of arthritis is osteoarthritis, an age-related disease. This means that we can expect more people to suffer from the disease as Canada’s population continues to get older.

While the number of people with arthritis is increasing, it is difficult to know exactly why. There are a number of risk factors for the disease beyond age, which means the odds of a millennial developing arthritis may not necessarily be the same as a baby boomer at the same age.

Factors that increase risk such as smoking and obesity, as well as factors that reduce risk such as income and education, change over generations.

To determine what risk factors are associated with arthritis prevalence across generations, Krembil Research Institute Senior Scientist Dr. Elizabeth Badley and colleagues examined 16 years’ worth of health data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey. They looked at arthritis prevalence and risk factors across four generations: the World War II “silent” generation (born 1935-1944), baby boomers (1945-1954 and 1955-1964) and Generation X (1965-1974).

The team found that arthritis is more prevalent in recent generations—and on average, recent generations are also getting the disease at a younger age.  An important factor that predicted the increasing prevalence of arthritis was obesity.

Even though recent generations are on average better educated, richer and smoking less than previous generations, which should be associated with less arthritis, they are also getting heavier which has largely cancelled out these advantages.

“Our understanding of the impact of weight on arthritis prevalence trends is likely to be an underestimate,” says Dr. Badley. “Arthritis prevalence may increase faster than previously believed as our population not only ages, but experiences increasing levels of obesity.”

The differences between generations also highlight the need for arthritis management and education programs aimed at reducing obesity and other risk factors in young and middle-aged adults. These programs would help counter the earlier onset and increasing rates of arthritis experienced by those in Generation X and future generations.