FRIDAY, April 27 (HealthDay News) -- As America's baby boomers move into late middle age, arthritis and other rheumatic conditions are taking up an ever larger chunk of health-care spending, a federal study warns.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, which spans the six years from 1997 to 2003, detected a 25 percent jump in the number of adult Americans with arthritis and other rheumatic conditions. Overall, more than 46 million people now suffer from arthritis, compared to 36.8 million in 1997.
That means more than one in every five adult Americans now has arthritis, the CDC says.
The total annual tab to care for these patients: almost $81 billion.
The $81 billion figure represents three percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), "a startling figure," said Louise Murphy, an Atlanta epidemiologist who worked with the CDC on the report.
Something must be done to turn these figures around, experts say.
"An aging population isn't something that we can control, but you can try to make the population healthier. We really have to push public health programs that improve food consumption and the ability to exercise," said Edward Yelin, professor of medicine and health at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of the study.
Baby boomers -- Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- are leading the surge. Of the nine million people newly diagnosed with arthritis or rheumatoid conditions during the six-year study, 66 percent of those people were between the ages of 44 to 64.
Significant, too, according to researchers, was that most of the increases in arthritis and other rheumatoid conditions occurred among people who had other health worries, such as diabetes or heart conditions. In this group, the prevalence of arthritis increased by 28 percent, from 31.8 million to 40.8 million, compared to a 6 percent increase for those who were otherwise healthy, 5 million to 5.3 million.
Overweight and obesity are prime culprits, Yelin said. "Higher levels of body mass index (BMI) are associated with higher rates of osteoarthritis," he said. "And osteoarthritis in the joint this year is the joint replacement five to ten years down the road."
Caring for these new patients doesn't come cheap. Attendant costs for treating people with arthritis rose by 24 percent between 1997 and 2003 -- from $65 billion to $81 billion, the report found.
Murphy said she and her colleagues were surprised to find the cost increases mostly attributable to people rather than procedures.
"We thought that the average costs [of treating arthritis and other rheumatic conditions] would increase because of the cost of the costly drugs, and the increased number of hip and knee surgeries," she said.
But instead they learned that while per-person spending for prescription drugs did climb sharply, almost doubling during the six-year period, other costs, including hospital stays, dropped enough so that actual per-person spending remained unchanged, Murphy said.
"We found that the driving reason for the higher spending was the increase in the number of people with arthritis," she said.
The study also reported that the jump in the number of arthritis sufferers meant that raw earnings losses due to arthritis among working adults (ages 18-65) increased by $9 billion from 1997 to 2003, although on a per-person basis during the same time period, the amount of lost wages slightly decreased for working adults, from $4,551 to $3,613.
"Why? I think it has to do with the state of the labor market at the two points, but this is pure speculation. The important point is that population growth meant a substantial national impact, even though on a personal level, on average, there was a lower figure."" said Yelin.
The report is published in the May issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism.
Dr. Doyt Conn, professor of medicine and director of the division of rheumatology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said the study pointed out the health care consequences of treating the large aging population. He particularly noted the jump in drug costs facing arthritis sufferers -- $1,635 per person in 2003 versus $899 in 1997.
"Our nation is going to have to confront this issue and see if we can do a good job with reducing the cost of drugs," Yelin said.
Murphy urged those with arthritis to become proactive in reducing their pain and improving their health.
"There are ways to cope with arthritis pain through self-management and through weight loss," she said.
Assess your risk for arthritis at The Arthritis Foundation.
By Janice Billingsley
SOURCES: Doyt Conn, M.D., professor, medicine, and director, division of rheumatology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta; Louise Murphy, Ph.D., epidemiologist on loan to CDC from Business Computer Applications Inc., Atlanta; Edward Yelin, Ph.D., professor, medicine and health, University of California, San Francisco; May 2007 Arthritis & Rheumatism
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