Among the report’s findings, arthritis was significantly higher among women than men, whites and blacks than Hispanics and Asians, and those who had less education or were physically inactive. It was also higher among people reporting fair to poor health and those who were disabled or unable to work.

The same groups reported a higher rate of arthritis-related activity limitation with one exception. Hispanics had a comparatively lower rate of doctor-diagnosed arthritis but a higher rate of activity limitation, leading researchers to believe Hispanics may experience more severe arthritis than other ethnic groups.

The survey also found that half of all adults with heart disease or diabetes and a third of obese adults also had arthritis. Arthritis can complicate the treatment of these other diseases.

But experts say that the situation is not hopeless. “The good news is that there is something you can do about it,” says Dr. White. “You should become aware what kind of arthritis you have from your provider and learn about it, decrease your weight if you are overweight and increase your activity through low impact [exercise] – such as the Arthritis Foundation’s Aquatic Program or the Walk With Ease Program, [which] have been shown in studies to significantly decrease pain and improve function.”

In spite of the success of such programs, studies show that people with arthritis are less likely to be physically active, often because they think movement will cause more pain or further damage their joints.

In fact, the opposite is the case, says Shreysaee Amin, MD, a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., noting that activity actually reduces pain, makes joints healthier and helps manage other chronic health problems. Plus, she adds, "being less active leads to weight gain, which adds further stress to joints."

Barbour acknowledges that physical activity can be hard. “We know [having] arthritis can make it difficult to engage in physical activity, but we encourage people to find a way because physical activity will reduce pain and improve function and quality of life.”

The Arthritis Foundation CEO adds that one of the biggest challenges is changing the perception that arthritis is an inevitable result of aging. "Arthritis isn't a given," says Palmer. "There is a lot that people can do on a personal level with diet and exercise. People hear that so often and think it's not a real answer. But in this case, it really is. And it doesn't have to mean going to the gym or doing something formal. Just walking around your neighborhood with a friend – that's all it takes."

She adds, "There is great research being done in this area, but the flow of research dollars has really slowed. That needs to change because I firmly believe that in time, arthritis can be prevented and cured."