Arthritis in seniors is common, with nearly half of adults age 65 and older being diagnosed. From causes to treatment, it’s important to understand how arthritis affects the body.
Often, small yet significant adjustments to exercise and diet can do the trick. Keep reading for senior arthritis tips, including information on how diet influences arthritis.
What Is Senior Arthritis?
Arthritis is a painful joint disease, quite literally translating from medical jargon to “joint inflammation.” Since a joint is where two bones meet, it makes sense that wear and tear could occur over time.
However, arthritis doesn’t just affect joints. The inflammation that occurs can affect other organs, such as the eyes or heart. Redness and swelling of the joints are common symptoms, although the effect of arthritis can be more widespread across the body.
Additionally, the pain involved with arthritis can put extra strain on the body, making everyday tasks like cooking or driving difficult. Although juvenile arthritis exists, arthritis is much more common in older adults.
Identifying the type of arthritis you have is often the first step to seeking treatment. There are many types of arthritis, including:
- Ankylosing spondylitis– affects joints and ligaments of the spine
- Gout– affects lower limbs, including areas such as arms, legs, feet, and often starts in the big toe
- Osteoarthritis– affects the hands, hips, and knees
- Psoriatic arthritis– affects the skin, joints, and tissues of people who have psoriasis
- Reactive (infective) arthritis– affects the joints as the result of an infection in the body
- Rheumatoid arthritis– affects joints as a type of autoimmune disease (immune system attacks healthy joint tissue)
Risks & Causes of Arthritis in Seniors
Risk factors for developing arthritis include:
- Autoimmune conditions (i.e. Lupus)
- Carrying extra weight
- Certain occupations
- Infection or injury
- Joint overuse (often due to certain jobs or sports)
- Toxin exposure (i.e. lead)
Some risk factors, such as age, cannot be controlled. Other risk factors, like smoking, can be controlled. Lifestyle modifications, such as eating well and exercising, are often crucial to controlling disease risk.
Additionally, people living with arthritis are still working, even as older adults. People with arthritis may experience limitations that affect their abilities at work. Continuing to work with untreated arthritis can cause symptoms to worsen.
While arthritis cannot be cured, symptoms and flares can be alleviated. From self-management to medical therapies, there’s an option for everyone.
The good news about arthritis is that there are many self-management techniques available. In other words, there are many ways you can manage arthritis symptoms yourself day to day, and make adjustments when necessary (as opposed to waiting for your next doctor’s appointment to make meaningful changes).
Some examples of self-management include:
- Asking for help on tasks that are too challenging to accomplish alone
- Attending and scheduling regular appointments with healthcare providers
- Communicating well with your support system
- Developing skills for dealing with stress
- Investing in professional help or home care
- Making healthy choices
- Seeking support from loved ones as needed
- Tracking symptoms
Physical Activity & Physical Therapy
It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise may actually reduce your risk of developing arthritis. If you have arthritis, choosing to participate in joint-friendly physical activity can help strengthen your body without worsening the wear and tear on your joints.
Physical fitness has many benefits, including, but not limited to:
- Decreasing chronic pain
- Improving mood
- Improving range of motion
- Increasing function and/or energy
- Promoting weight loss or maintenance of a healthy weight
- Reducing the risk of other chronic condition like diabetes and heart disease
If physical activity seems like a bit of a stretch at this point, you can start with physical or occupational therapy. This can help you adjust to daily movements while living with arthritis, and ultimately help you live and function more independently.
Medications, Surgery & Supplements
Medications for joint pain and other arthritis symptoms are also an option, although many come with undesirable side effects. Research has shown that intra-articular injections, in particular, may be helpful in alleviating osteoarthritis symptoms. In serious cases or those with permanent damage, surgery may be suggested.
As a patient, you’ll want to weigh the benefits against the risks with each type of treatment or therapy. More “natural” or holistic methods—such as fish oil supplements—may also be suggested by your healthcare team as a way to reduce inflammation. However, it’s generally recommended to get your nutrients from food first whenever possible.
How Diet Influences Arthritis
Diet is an important component of arthritis prevention and treatment. What you eat can influence the frequency of inflammation and, ultimately, increase your quality of life.
Foods to Eat More Of
In general, getting enough calories and protein is key to providing your body with enough energy and keeping it out of a disease state. In terms of specific nutrients, calcium is crucial to supporting healthy bones and joints.
In addition, it’s recommended to get plenty of fruits and vegetables, which contain natural compounds called phytonutrients. These components are thought to be key in mediating inflammation and protecting the body.
Healthy (unsaturated) fats and foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids are also linked with reducing inflammation in the body. Some foods with healthy fats include:
- Fatty fish (recommended 1-2 times weekly)
- Hemp hearts
- Nut butter, nuts, or seeds (i.e. chia seeds, flaxseed, peanut butter, walnuts)
- Nut or seed oils (i.e. flaxseed oil, walnut oil)
- Plant-based oils (i.e. canola oil, olive oil, soybean oil)
Research also suggests your gut environment (microbiome) may make a difference. Probiotic foods and supplements can help contribute to a more balanced intestine. Some foods that contain probiotics include:
- Fermented dairy products (i.e. kefir)
Foods to Eat Less Of
In terms of foods associated with an increase in inflammation, saturated fats lie at the top of the list. High-processed foods often contain more sugar, salt, and fat than is appropriate for a healthy diet, so it may be best to steer clear of these types of foods. Although it’s been banned in recent years, you’ll also want to avoid trans fat.
If you have gout, you’ll also want to avoid purine-rich foods. The following foods are usually high in purine:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Seafood and shellfish (i.e. anchovies, sardines, scallops)
- Some meats and organ meats (i.e. bacon, turkey, liver)
In addition to being high in purine, alcoholic beverages may interfere with certain medications. While some vegetables, grains, and dairy contain purines, they are less likely to cause inflammation.
In Summary on Senior Arthritis
Just because arthritis is common in older adults doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. Whether you have arthritis or not, diet is key to supporting healthy joints. While some causes of arthritis and inflammation are unavoidable (such as age), controlling what you can (such as physical activity or alcohol intake) may increase your quality of life.
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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease. Rheumatoid Arthritis: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Steps to Take. Niams.nih.gov. Published November 2022.