Leigh Callahan, PhD, professor of medicine and social medicine at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says a large base of research supports this theory. She says osteoarthritis, or OA, often caused by wear and tear of the joints, is more prevalent among physical laborers. Data show more prevalence of disease and mortality from most chronic illnesses in lower socioeconomic groups, although it is difficult to pinpoint why. She says risk factors like obesity are seen in greater numbers in lower-income populations, which also tend to be less educated and more likely to spend money on daily needs than expenses like preventive care.

Blue-collar workers with arthritis retire sooner possibly because they are less likely to have good health care options, says Eric Gall, MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona and director of the Arizona Arthritis Center. With arthritis in particular, early diagnosis and intervention lead to better outcomes.

“White collar-workers can arrange their schedules to exercise and get physical therapy,” he says. “Blue-collar workers may only have evenings and weekends [available], and those services might not be available then.”

Regardless of the kind of work one does, people are living and remaining in the workforce longer, and the mere process of aging increases the likelihood of getting arthritis. Dr. Cabán-Martinez says it is important to use studies like this to reinforce the need for workforce change. The authors suggest improving disability and unemployment insurance and arthritis health promotion interventions.

He suggests using ergonomic interventions, or changing the workflow or duties to allow people to remain productive longer. For instance, a nurse or police officer could be reassigned from patient handling or street patrol to perform administrative duties. “Wal-Mart might have an elderly greeter at the door instead of at a labor-intensive job so it is not so burdensome on the joints and body,” he says.

“We should be sensitive to people with functional limitations. A lot of people are very able to remain engaged and simple tweaks in the workload can make a huge difference for them.”