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Aging and Arthritis: What’s in Your Toolbox?

Elder man sitting on sofa because he hurting his knee. Health care in senior people concept.

Did you know that more than 50 million adults in the U.S are affected by some form of arthritis? In fact, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in America. It often occurs alongside other chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. There are many different types: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, and childhood arthritis.

The most common type is osteoarthritis. With osteoarthritis (or OA), cartilage within a joint begins to break down, so there’s less cushioning between joints, which results in pain, stiffness, and swelling. These symptoms may start slowly and gradually increase over time. This wear down can also impact tendons, ligaments, and bone.

Though osteoarthritis can occur at any joint, the most affected areas are hands, knees, hips, and spine. While this condition is very common, particularly as we age, it is also very manageable with observation of healthy lifestyle behaviors and a routine that promotes self-care.

Your Arthritis Management Toolbox

Arthritis is an inflammatory condition where tissue in the joint becomes inflamed, often from wear and tear, as in the case of osteoarthritis. Observing an anti-inflammatory lifestyle can support management of OA symptoms and promote overall well-being.

There are three easy concepts behind an anti-inflammatory lifestyle to give you your best life:

  1. Enjoy fruits and vegetablesFruit and vegetables have important plant chemicals called phytonutrients, those very same compounds that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors. Enjoying a spectrum of colors and varieties helps ensure your body has access to all the nutrients, including antioxidants, to reduce inflammation and repair tissue to its full potential. Fruits and vegetables are abundant with fiber and are ideal sources of micronutrients like potassium that help manage and regulate blood pressure. Reflect at the end of the day—if about 50 percent of your food and nutrition intake was from fruits and vegetables, that is great.

While there are no “good” or “bad” foods, foods that are ultra-processed, such as those salty or sweet snacks, can contribute to inflammation. Enjoy these foods only occasionally. Enjoy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains often.

  1. Find joy in movementOne of the best ways to care for ourselves is to move our body in a way that brings us joy. This can be dancing, playing softball, jogging, or other activities. This may also be rolling outside in your wheelchair, strolling with your walker, or doing chair yoga. All movements are good movements!

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 150 minutes of physical activity each week to maintain health. You can choose any way to move your body that feels good to meet that mark! Physical activity ensures that we maintain strength, balance, muscle mass, and bone density as we age—important for avoiding falls and injuries. Physical activity is also correlated with reduced risk for dementia, improved mood and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

If joint pain is a barrier, there are evidence-based programs for movement designed to support and meet you where you are today, including Active Living Every Day; Fit and Strong; Tai Chi for Arthritis and Falls Prevention; Enhance®Fitness; Otago Exercise Program; Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance; and the Washington State Department of Health’s no-cost, self-directed Walk with Ease program.

  1. HydrateGood hydration ensures that the nutrients your body needs to maintain health and healing are able to go where they are needed. When we are well hydrated, we can uptake the nutrition we intake—including those anti-inflammatory phytonutrients we talked about earlier. Additionally, ensuring we are well hydrated allows us to remove those elements in our body that are harmful and inflammatory, such as excess sodium. This reduces swelling, discomfort, and pain and improves mobility, improves mood, and cognition. Additionally, cartilage is 65 percent to 80 percent water. Staying hydrated helps maintain cartilage!

Other resources

Consider a self-management education program! There are many options, including in person, virtual, and hybrid. Better Choices, Better Health®, Chronic Disease Self-Management Programs, Chronic Pain Self-Management, Enhance®Wellness, and Program to Encourage Active and Rewarding Lives (PEARLS) are few examples.

When thinking about OA, it’s important to keep the 4Ms of Age Friendly Care framework in mind—Medications, Mentation, Mobility, and What Matters—whether it’s taking medication, keeping a positive attitude, staying physically active, or deciding what is important for you regarding life’s choices.

You are worth it!

Mary Pat O'LearyContributor Mary Pat O’Leary RN, BSN is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle & King County and a division of the Seattle Human Services Department. She thanks Margaret Chaykin, MPH, CHES, RDN, CD, Evidence-Based Intervention Coordinator on the Washington State Department of Health’s Heart Disease Stroke Diabetes Prevention Team for reviewing and contributing to this article.