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Why young journalists should write about arthritis

Why young journalists should write about arthritis

Picture of William Heisel

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a first-of-its-kind report on arthritis at the state and county levels recently.

Very few people in the media seemed to care.

The agency reported some pretty big numbers worth follow up:

1. "Doctor-diagnosed arthritis is a common chronic condition that affects approximately 52.5 million (22.7%) adults in the United States and is a leading cause of disability."

Think about this for a minute: That means that one out of every five people you know may suffer from arthritis.

2. "The prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis has been well documented at the national level, but little has been published at the state level and the county level, where interventions are carried out and can have their greatest effect."

This makes these new state- and county-level numbers incredibly important. Solutions for identifying and addressing arthritis are going to be different for DeKalb County, Georgia — where Atlanta, Emory University, and the CDC are — than they are for Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota. The infrastructure of the community matters a great deal, as do income and education levels. There are cultural contexts to consider, as well as the ability to leverage large employers or a strong health system.

3. "The age-standardized model-predicted prevalence of doctor-diagnosed arthritis varied substantially by county, with estimates ranging from 15.8% to 38.6%."

So in some counties, fewer than 16 percent of people have arthritis while in others nearly 40 percent have it. That’s a massive difference.

Even with all these promising hooks for a story, barely anyone wrote about the CDC report.

I found one trade outlet that covered it. (Send me yours if you wrote one.) And the report barely merited a mention on Twitter.

Why might that be? It could be that journalists are predominately well under the age where they might experience arthritis. (Although there are lots of other aches and pains that come with the job.) They also don’t hang out with a lot of people who are likely to openly complain about having arthritis, either. But what about their editors’ ideas? One would think a few of their stoop-shouldered, desk-bound editors would want to see a story about the rise of the disease. But it’s hard to compete with the looming threat of Zika, the prospect of Obamacare being eliminated, and other topics that legitimately occupy a lot of the public conversation.

Over a series of posts, I’m going to suggest a few reasons why arthritis is worth more ink. I should disclose that I don’t suffer from arthritis and would say that, like the hypothetical writers I describe above, I don’t find arthritis front and center in my everyday life, either. When you look at the current demographic numbers, though, and think about where health trends are taking us, it seems negligent, foolish, or both to not devote more time and energy to what is surely going to be something everyone is talking about in the years to come.

To that end, here’s the first thing we should get out of the way. Arthritis isn’t just about getting older.

Yes, more people have arthritis in older age groups than younger. But look at the breakdown. How many people under 44 would you guess had arthritis? One in 100? One in 50?

Try 1 out of every 11 people aged 18 to 44, or 8.8 percent.

Among 45-year-olds to 64-year-olds, the rate goes up to 1 out of every 3, or 33 percent.

And then by 65 and older, it’s up to 53.3 percent. But that also means that about half of all people in the true retiree category do not have doctor-diagnosed arthritis. This likely means some diagnoses are being missed, which is a problem in and of itself. But it also means that the common assumption that arthritis is just about getting older is wrong. (There are likely missed diagnoses in the other age groups, too.)

Making it even more interesting and potentially – is this too much to say? – uplifting is the fact that when you look at the CDC map with the places that have the highest and lowest rates of arthritis, you instantly think, “But wait? Aren’t there a lot of retirees in Southern California, Florida, and a lot of other places on the map showing really low rates of arthritis?” Yes there are. In fact, if you compare the arthritis map to a map of median ages by county — based on U.S. Census data — you will see that there are a lot of places with younger people and high arthritis and a lot of places with older populations and low arthritis. So what is it about?

I’ll posit one theory in my next post.

[Photo by Jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr.]

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