Fact: Rheumatoid arthritis can develop at any age. The autoimmune disease, which causes inflammation in joints and surrounding tissues, commonly begins between the ages of 25 and 60.
“This [myth] trivializes arthritis,” says Dr. Eric Matteson, the chairman of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Saying it is ‘just old age,’ has the same impact as saying, ‘you get wrinkles and lose your hair.’”
According to Dr. Patience White, vice president of public health for the Arthritis Foundation, most sufferers are under age 65, including 300,000 children who have rheumatoid arthritis. “People think it is ‘expected’ [in old age] and that is just not true,” she says.
(Rheumatoid arthritis is not to be confused with osteoarthritis, which is the most common joint disorder, and is indeed due to normal aging and “wear and tear” on joints.)
Rheumatoid arthritis can impose significant limitations on those who suffer from it. It can hinder mobility and participation in everyday activities, often resulting in the need for joint-replacement surgery. The life expectancy of patients with severe or poorly controlled rheumatoid arthritis may be up to seven years shorter than the average person without the disease, and patients are twice as likely to have heart disease. That’s because rheumatoid arthritis can affect nearly every part of the body, causing hardening of the arteries, damage to lung tissue, inflammation of blood vessels and swelling and inflammation of the heart.
“Saying that it is a disease of old people promotes an atmosphere of ‘it isn’t a big deal,’” says Matteson.