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'This is not your mother's arthritis': Most cases found in younger Americans

— Imagine not being able to walk down the stairs without pain. You can't get into your car without agony. You aren't even able to bend down to tie your shoe. That's the reality for a growing number as they struggle with arthritis.

That number is "alarmingly high," according to a report released Tuesday.

About 54.4 million American adults have had a doctor diagnose them with painful joint inflammation and stiffness, according to the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Signs Report. That breaks down to about one in four adults in the nation.

The number is probably an under-count since it does not include those who have had to go into nursing home care because of it. It also does not include people who may be suffering but haven't gone to the doctor.

"This is not your mother's arthritis," Acting CDC Director Anne Schuchat said. "Contrary to popular opinion, it is not an old person's disease."

Aging baby boomers aren't the only ones who have it. The majority of current cases of arthritis -- 32.2 million -- are in people under age 65. Women have it more than men, and the number is particularly acute for diabetics, heart patients and those struggling with obesity. About 49.3% of people with heart disease have arthritis, 47.1% of diabetics and 30.6% of people who are obese.

The new numbers come from self-reported data collected between 2013 and 2015.

The research also found that 23.7 million Americans with arthritis have had to limit their activities because of the pain. Some say they can't bend or stoop. Others report having difficulty kneeling or struggle with holding a cup; others find it tough to walk even three blocks.

"I've been with the Arthritis Foundation for 30 years and watched these numbers go up and up, so that is not a big surprise, but it is really disappointing to hear there are so many adults with activity limitation," said Cindy McDaniel, the foundation's senior vice president of consumer and health impact.

Many people with arthritis take some kind of pain medication, including opioids, but there are safer and cheaper options.

Exercise can help manage pain and improve actual physical abilities by 40%, yet one in three adults with arthritis doesn't report doing any kind of physical activity in their leisure time, the report says. Education about what exercises can help and how to better manage the condition is also effective, yet only one in 10 adults with arthritis chooses this option.

"We do have to be careful about these exercise recommendations, though," said Guy Eakin, senior vice president of scientific strategy with the Arthritis Foundation. "We have more than 100 types of arthritis." That means some people can't exercise their way out of the pain, but many can and shouldn't be afraid to bike, walk or swim.

Eakin said more research into how to fight arthritis is needed. He, McDaniel and 400 other advocates went on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to talk to Congress about how to better invest in the disease.

Today, the condition costs the country $81 billion, and that number will probably go up. By 2040, scientists project, arthritis will affect 78.4 million people.

"The cost of care is dramatically outpacing what the country is putting into research," Eakin said. "Arthritis can rob people of their lives, and as a leading cause of disability, it is why people retire and go into assisted living, and it's a dramatic cost to our national economy. We can't fix health care if we can't fix arthritis."