Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the U.S.—nearly half of all adults age 65 or older have been diagnosed by their doctor with some form of arthritis.1
But this risk does not affect men and women equally. Statistics show that women have significantly higher risk for nearly all types of arthritis except gout. This is particularly true for osteoarthritis of the knees.
- Learn more: What Is Knee Osteoarthritis?
Why is this? Researchers have several theories that have supporting evidence. Some are factors that women cannot do anything about—but women can take action to manage one key risk.
Factors Beyond Our Control: Biomechanics and Hormones
The way a woman’s body is structured may play a role in her risk for osteoarthritis of the knees. Specifically, women tend to have wider hips, which some experts believe affects the alignment of the knee and causes uneven stress on them, leading to osteoarthritis. But although studies have shown that uneven knee loads can raise risk for osteoarthritis, they have not shown that this affects women in particular.
Extreme problems with knee alignment, such as being knock-kneed or bow-legged, can be treated with a procedure called a partial (or unicompartmental) knee replacement.
Women also tend to have more flexible joints and hypermobility (double-jointedness), which some research indicates could increase risk for arthritis.
The rate of osteoarthritis in women shoots up after menopause. This has led experts to believe that the female hormone estrogen must affect arthritis risk. Women also experience much more severe knee OA after menopause. However, studies of women taking estrogen (via hormone replacement therapy) who have developed OA have produced conflicting results, so researchers can't say for sure how the relationship between estrogen and arthritis works.
The Risk Factor You Can Control: Obesity
Obesity is one of the most significant—and potentially preventable—predictors for osteoarthritis. Body weight has been shown to be connected with both the development and progression of joint deterioration.
Experts are still not sure of exactly how obesity may trigger OA (whether it's caused by decreased activity, extra weight on load-bearing joints, ongoing inflammation, or a combination of these factors), but there's no doubt that the two are connected. Unfortunately, more than a third of U.S. adults are now obese.
But there is good news. Losing extra pounds can do both of these:
- Cut your risk for developing OA.
- Decrease your joint pain and slow joint degeneration if you already have symptoms of OA.
A combination of diet and exercise is the safest and most effective way to lose weight…and keep it off. Even if you have an achy knee or hip that prevents you from doing activities like running, there are several other types of exercise that can help you stay active without putting strain on your joints. These can include:
See Ways to Get Exercise When You Have Arthritis for more ideas.
Women—and all adults—can take steps to feel healthier and decrease their joint pain. If you're struggling with ways to manage your arthritis or general health, talk with your doctor.
- Prevalence of Doctor-Diagnosed Arthritis and Arthritis-Attributable Activity Limitation — United States, 2010–2012. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). November 8, 2013 / 62(44);869-873
Photo: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases