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Americans are getting arthritis of the knee at younger ages, new research finds. Both obesity and knee injuries have been increasing. These may be the main reasons for earlier arthritis, the study suggests. Researchers looked at the average age of diagnosis for knee osteoarthritis. The average was 69 in the 1990s. By the current decade, the average was 56. About 5% of cases now are among people ages 45 to 54. Twenty years ago, only 1.5% were diagnosed in this age group. The research was presented at a conference. Other research looked at the effect of sports on knee osteoarthritis. The study combined results of previous studies on this topic. People who played specific sports were 3 to 6 times as likely as nonplayers to develop knee osteoarthritis. This risk was seen in amateur or elite soccer players. It also was seen in elite long-distance runners, competitive weightlifters and wrestlers. HealthDay News wrote about the studies November 5.

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. As we age, our risk of developing it increases. Until the last 20 years, osteoarthritis was rare in people under age 50. Today, about 5% of osteoarthritis occurs in people ages 45 to 54.

Osteoarthritis affects joints that take the most wear and tear. This includes the knees, hips, hands and feet.

It actually should be no surprise that osteoarthritis now strikes people at younger ages. Two of the major factors that increase the risk of osteoarthritis are extra body weight, especially obesity, and joint injury.

We are all well aware of the rapid rise in obesity. Alarming numbers of children are overweight. Many of them become obese in early adulthood, if not sooner.

Athletes today take a greater pounding to their bodies than ever before. They are bigger, stronger and faster. The size and power of their muscles show no sign of slowing down.

You can make your muscles stronger, but there is no way to strengthen your joints. Muscle power and strength have outpaced the ability of joints to take this punishment.

The competitive sports that increase the risk of osteoarthritis include:

  • Soccer (football)

  • Long-distance running

  • Weightlifting

  • Wrestling

  • American football

What Changes Can I Make Now?

There's no sure-fire way to prevent osteoarthritis. But you can reduce the odds.

  • Maintain a healthy weight, starting in childhood

  • Protect your joints from injury, as much as possible

  • Exercise regularly

Certain competitive sports clearly increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees and hips. But, on the whole, exercise actually may help to prevent osteoarthritis. These types of exercise are generally good for your joints:

  • Walking or running in supportive, well-cushioned footwear

  • Swimming

  • Bike riding, either outside on a bicycle or indoors on a stationary bike

  • Resistance training with light to moderate weights. Don't keep adding weight to see how much you can lift. With lighter weights and more repetitions, your muscles will add strength and tone with less joint stress

  • Water aerobics

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Many people who do all the right things still get osteoarthritis. They eat right, keep their weight in line, have avoided injuries and exercise smartly. Much more research is being done to try to understand why they develop osteoarthritis, sometimes at a young age.

Last Annual Review Date: 2011-11-07T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: Harvard Health Publications

Reference: Arthritis section on Better Medicine

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