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Surge in arthritis on the way

May 13, 2007

Wall Street Journal

Federal public-health officials are predicting a surge in the prevalence of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions by the year 2030, and popular retirement states such as Florida, Arizona and California are likely to bear the brunt of the burden.

About 46 million U.S. adults currently have arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia and other rheumatic conditions, resulting in $128 billion in medical expenses as well as indirect costs such as lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That amount is equal to about 1.2 percent of the 2003 U.S. gross domestic product, the CDC says.

Now, an aging population, expanding waistlines and low levels of physical activity are likely to push the number of affected people up 46 percent to about 67 million people by 2030, or about 25 percent of the projected population, according to the CDC. Most of the increase will come from those who develop age-related degeneration of joints in the hip, knee, or elsewhere. An estimated 25 million will be in enough pain that they will have trouble moving around, the CDC says.

The CDC estimates raise concerns about the toll that arthritis could take on the nation's health-care systems. In Arizona, the CDC estimates that arthritis cases will rise 87 percent, or by a million people. Florida, which currently has 3.7 million arthritis sufferers, is expected to have 6.3 million. California, which now has 5.9 million people with arthritis, will see its total mushroom to an estimated 7.9 million.

Other states whose populations are expected to age considerably by 2030, such as Nevada, Texas and Utah, are also likely to see large percentage increases in the number of residents they have with arthritis, the CDC says. Arthritis cases are expected to jump more than 30 percent in 13 states.

The CDC says it hasn't projected the potential cost of the epidemic in 2030. "We're very reluctant to make projections because the health-care system is so dynamic and changing," says Chad Helmick, a medical epidemiologist with the agency's arthritis program.

Still, the consequences of a ballooning epidemic are huge, says Patience White, chief public-health officer for the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation. "The fact here is it's causing an increasing number of activity limitations," she says. "People cannot live on their own, and the whole push today is to keep people's independence."

While many arthritis patients take medication for their pain, public-health officials are pushing physical-activity programs as a longer-term solution both for those with arthritis and those at risk — particularly older, overweight adults. Only 11 percent of adults with arthritis have taken classes to learn to manage their arthritis, Dr. Helmick says. The CDC funds programs in 36 states that promote physical activity and weight reduction to help alleviate pain.

"If you lose 15 pounds or so, you can cut your pain in half," says Dr. White. The disease won't progress as quickly, either, she says.

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