National Women's Health Policy

Arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

In 2008, 31 per cent of Australians were affected by long-term arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions.303 However, the burden of disease from musculoskeletal diseases (primarily arthritis and osteoporosis) is much higher in older women.304

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health found that 63 per cent of women aged 77–85 years had been diagnosed with arthritis by a doctor in 2005. 305 Osteoarthritis is far more common among women (85 per cent) than men (15 per cent) and mostly occurs in those aged 55 years and over.306 Osteoporosis is likely to be under-diagnosed as it has no symptoms and its effects are apparent mainly in fractures.307

Women are at greater risk of osteoporosis than men, particularly once they have reached menopause. Total bone mass in females is naturally lower than in males, and the normal decrease in bone mass with age is accelerated in post-menopausal women due to their decreased oestrogen levels.308

Arthritis limits mobility and can cause difficulties in carrying out daily tasks in the home or workplace. Quality of life may be affected by chronic pain, limitations in physical functioning, and restrictions in the ability to work and interact socially. Functional limitations and disability associated with arthritis can also have a negative impact on emotional wellbeing by affecting self-esteem and self-image.309

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health found women with arthritis more likely to report co-morbid conditions, have poorer health and score as depressed and anxious. Arthritis is associated with decreased scores for physical and social function over time in older women.310

Fractures associated with osteoporosis are a concern for older Australian women, with 92 per cent of fractures in people 65 years and over being osteoporotic in nature.311 Fractures are a major cause of morbidity among older women.312 Apart from the pain and loss of function associated with the fracture event itself, there can also be more long-term impacts on physical and mental health and functioning. These may include not only ongoing pain, physical impairments and disability, but also reduced social interaction, emotional distress, and self-limitation caused by the fear of falling and fracturing a bone.313 A number of modifiable and non-modifiable factors increase the risk of osteoporosis and osteoporotic fractures. These include older age, being physically inactive, having a family history of osteoporosis or minimal trauma fractures, poor calcium intake, vitamin D deficiency and (in women) being post-menopausal. 314 Where possible, reducing exposure to these factors can help to prevent osteoporosis.

There are also differences in prevalence between groups of women, related to socioeconomic status, labour force participation and relationship status. Higher rates of arthritis are found among women with lower income and less education. Findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health showed there were few demographic differences between women who did and did not report arthritis, except that those with arthritis were more likely to find it difficult to manage on their income.315 In all regional/remote areas, females were significantly more likely to report arthritis thanthose in major cities; for females this was significant for those aged between 25 and 64 years.316

Modifiable risk factors for arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions include lack of physical activity, overweight and obesity. The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health found women who reported arthritis were more likely to be overweight or obese, to exercise less, and to be smokers, than women who did not report arthritis.317 One Australian study found that the lack of time women had for both exercise and relaxation, due to their work around caring and housework, resulted in greater musculoskeletal pain and symptoms.318