Earlier diagnosis and advances in treatment mean that people with arthritis are likely to have a better quality of life than they did a generation ago. Yet research shows that having arthritis still impacts one’s health-related quality of life in negative ways. In a study published in 2011 in Arthritis Care & Research, researchers found that measures of physical and mental health were consistently two to three times worse in people with arthritis than in those without arthritis.
For the study, researchers reviewed data collected from more than a million adults. The data stem from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing nationwide telephone health survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Study participants did not specify what type of arthritis they had; they were asked whether a doctor or other health professional had ever told them they had some form of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout and lupus.
Researchers compared survey answers from people with arthritis to those without arthritis. Some specific findings of the study:
- One in four adults with arthritis rated their health as “fair” or “poor,” versus one in eight adults who didn’t have arthritis.
- People with arthritis reported feeling physically unwell for an average of seven out of the previous 30 days versus an average of two or three days for those without arthritis.
- People with arthritis reported feeling mentally unwell – from stress, depression or emotional problems – an average of five of the past 30 days, versus an average of three days for people without arthritis.
- More people with arthritis said they experienced days when their health prevented them from doing day-to-day activities, such as going to work.
- People with arthritis who were out of work, unable to work or who said cost was a barrier to proper care were more likely to report poor or fair health than those who were employed and could afford appropriate health care.
The overall impact of arthritis might also depend on whether other health problems are present, says study co-author Sylvia Furner, PhD, associate professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Researchers found that people with arthritis were more likely to rate their health as poor or fair if they were obese, or had diabetes or high blood pressure. People with arthritis who were physically active were 50% less likely to rate their health as fair or poor than those who said they didn’t get much exercise. This suggests that people with arthritis might be able to improve their quality of life by getting exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, for example. “These are modifiable risk factors, and that’s an encouraging note,” says Furner.
More research is needed to clarify cause and effect in some cases, says Edward Yelin, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. For example, he says, “People may stay physically active because they don’t have arthritis or don’t have it as severely – or are people who are more active less likely to get it?”
Overall, this large study helps provide very “reliable estimates” of some of the challenges people with arthritis face, says Yelin. “There’s nothing all that surprising about it. But it does give us some notion, with this sample from all 50 states, of how severe these impacts can be.”