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Arthritis Painful Condition Expected to Hit Epidemic Proportions

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Remember the "Age of Aquarius"?

Well, if you do, prepare for the Age of . . . Arthritis.

Recently released state and federal reports indicate that increasing numbers of baby boomers are creaking, cracking, aching and ouching their way to and through midlife.

One in three Georgia adults --- more than 1.8 million people --- lives with chronic joint conditions --- and half of them are under age 55, according to a state study.

Nationally, 70 million adult Americans (also one in three) are affected by arthritis or chronic joint symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

Arthritis and rheumatic diseases cost the country $124.8 billion annually, an estimated $42.6 billion in direct medical costs and $82.2 billion in lost productivity. By 2030, those numbers could more than double, experts say.

In Georgia, the disease accounts for more than $317 million in hospital costs and leads to 278 deaths annually, according to the Georgia Arthritis Report issued by the state Division of Public Health and the Arthritis Foundation's Georgia chapter.

New health interventions aimed at improving flexibility and strength are being offered by the state to try to lessen the burden on individuals and the health care system. Educating the public about the personal and societal impact of the disease is also under way.

Jennifer Bombard of the Arthritis Foundation says most people don't realize the prevalence or the societal impact of arthritis. And sometimes they don't even realize their new aches and pains are arthritis.

"A lot of people haven't been told by their doctor that they have arthritis," said Bombard, director of surveillance and epidemiology for the Georgia Arthritis Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group. "But what they can talk about is their joint pain and its persistence."

Arthritis comprises more than 100 conditions. The initial signs include pain, swelling and limited movement that last for more than two weeks. People with chronic joint symptoms may be on their way to arthritis and are included in people tallied in the Georgia report.

Genetics may place a person at risk for some types of arthritis. Health experts suggest these ways to prevent or manage arthritis pain: Maintain an appropriate weight, exercise regularly, and --- most important --- seek an early diagnosis to prevent joint damage and disability.

People with arthritis are three times as likely to be burdened with pain that affects regular activities, including missing work. But physical activity can help reduce disability from arthritis and help ensure an active life, doctors say.

Research recently published in the medical journal Arthritis Care & Research calculated the benefits.

"Vigorous physical activity could reduce disability among older adults with arthritis by 5 [percent] to 10 percent," said lead author Dorothy D. Dunlop of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

The condition also can be deadly. Some joint diseases weaken the immune system, which makes infections more deadly. Also, the disease can affect vital organs such as the heart, kidney and lungs.

Last year, Georgia began a physical activity intervention pilot study that included tai chi and pool exercises to help arthritis sufferers in Crisp, Webster and Muscogee counties. The classes may soon be available statewide.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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