Osteoarthritis vs Rheumatoid Arthritis: What Seniors Should Know

Arthritis is a common medical ailment affecting seniors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly half of all adults aged 65 and older have been diagnosed with arthritis. Characterized by inflammation one or more joints, it often results in limited mobility that affects seniors’ quality of life.

While all instances of arthritis involve joint inflammation — swelling in the areas where bones meet — there are over 100 types of arthritis, each of which affects the body in a different way. With that said, two of the most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. So, what’s the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and what steps can seniors take to protect themselves from these two common medical ailments?

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is an age-related joint disease that involves the gradual break down of articular cartilage. The bones in a healthy joint don’t directly touch each other. Instead, the areas where the bones meet are covered with a smooth tissue known as articular cartilage. The purpose of articular cartilage is to lubricate joints, allowing the bones to move more easily.

Over time, however, the articular cartilage in a person’s joints can break down. Each time a person bends or otherwise uses a joint, it will expose the articular cartilage in that joint to stress. Over the course of many decades, this constant stress will gradually break down the articular cartilage to the point where it’s no longer able to cushion the respective bones. When this occurs, the condition is known as osteoarthritis.

Affecting approximately three in 10 seniors — about 3.3% of all adults, globally — osteoarthritis is the single most common type of arthritis. It’s moderately more common among women, but millions of senior men suffer from osteoarthritis as well.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder that involves an overactive immune response to one or more joints. Unlike with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t involve the gradual break down of articular cartilage. Instead, it’s an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks the articular cartilage and/or the synovial membrane in one or more joints.

Osteoarthritis is considered a degenerative disease that, like other degenerative diseases, becomes worse over time. It’s important to note, however, that seniors have a higher risk of developing both types of arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation says that the average age of onset for rheumatoid arthritis is between 30 and 60.

While rheumatoid arthritis can affect any joint in the body, the autoimmune disorder is most common in the following joints:

  • Wrists
  • Fingers
  • Hands
  • Toes
  • Feet
  • Ankles
  • Hips
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders

How Seniors Can Lower Their Risk of Osteoarthritis

To lower their risk of osteoarthritis, seniors should perform weight-bearing exercises on a regular basis. As the name suggests, weight-bearing exercises force a senior to hold or support added weight. This weight may come from the senior’s own body, such as when performing a push-up, or it may come from an external source, such as dumbbells or other free weights. Regardless, all weight-bearing exercises use weight to engage muscles and joints. When a senior’s joints are exposed to added weight, his or her body will respond by repairing and rebuilding cartilage.

Anti-inflammatory drugs have been proven effective at lowering the risk of osteoporosis (as well as treating its symptoms). Osteoarthritis, like all other types of arthritis, involves inflammation of the joints. When a senior’s joints are inflamed, his or her joint cartilage will break down more quickly. Anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen minimize bodily inflammation, thereby protecting joint cartilage from breaking down.

Of course, seniors should always consult with their primary care physician before taking any new medication, including over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs.

How Seniors Can Lower Their Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are also ways for seniors to lower their risk of rheumatoid arthritis, one of which is to consume less processed sugar. There’s a strong correlation between the amount of processed sugar a person consumes and his or her risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows that people who consume an excessive amount of processed sugar are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than their counterparts who follow a low-sugar diet.

Weight-bearing exercises aren’t just effective at lowering the risk of osteoporosis; they can help for rheumatoid arthritis as well. Weight-bearing exercises promote the production of new bone tissue. Although this doesn’t necessarily prevent rheumatoid arthritis from occurring, it can suppress and minimize the symptoms of this autoimmune disorder.

In Conclusion

The terms “osteoarthritis” and “rheumatoid arthritis” are often used interchangeably when referring to degenerative forms of arthritis. While similar, though, they aren’t the same. Osteoarthritis is a chronic joint disease that involves the natural, age-related loss of articular cartilage in the joints, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when a person’s immune system overreacts to joint tissue by attacking it.

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