A chronic disease that targets women

Imagine being unable to do the things you love to do, like playing sports, writing, or holding hands with someone you love. For most of us, that seems unimaginable, but for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) it’s a painful reality. That’s because RA systematically attacks the body joint by joint causing inflammation so bad, it’s often tough to even walk.

RA, which affects nearly 2 million Americans, is a discriminating chronic disease in that 75 percent of patients are women. When you factor in that women make up almost half of the current U.S. workforce, the impact of RA is enormous in terms of medical expenses and lost productivity. According to the latest numbers released by the CDC, the total cost of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions is about $130 billion a year, including nearly $50 billion in lost earnings alone.

That’s why raising awareness about RA and other chronic diseases in the workplace is critical, as an increasingly aging working population becomes the norm. More and more of us are delaying retirement. And according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, by next year, nearly a quarter (21%) of the U.S. working population will be 55 years old or older (RA typically presents between age 20-60). By 2020, the number of women in the workforce is projected to reach 92 million.

These are numbers we can’t afford to ignore.

RA is an oft-misunderstood disease. Many patients are hesitant to bring it to the attention of bosses for fear that they will be perceived as “just having a little pain.” And if the fear of perceived negative repercussions is not enough, reality can quickly set in, forcing many to lose their jobs, reduce their work hours or simply quit.

Next time you’re at the office, check around you and see if the person next to you at work has to keep getting up to walk around, or flex their ankles, or fingers. Chances are, if they don’t do that, getting up from their desk at the end of the day will take much longer and be profoundly painful.

With small, and usually easy changes like flex time, or telecommuting, employers can make life easier for those who suffer and increase productivity for the business and the patient. It’s a win-win situation.

RA is a debilitating disease and the key is early diagnosis. There are effective treatments out there. But if misdiagnosed, or diagnosed late, a person can become disabled within five years.

A better understanding of rheumatoid arthritis and getting the right attention and care will not only reduce health care costs, but will allow people living with RA to decrease their pain, improve function, and live productive and fulfilling lives. That’s good. It’s good for those who suffer from RA, good for women, and especially good for the workforce.

Barbara Kasoff is the President, CEO and Co-founder of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy advocacy organization with over a million members including 68 business organizations, educating and advocating on economic issues for women in business.

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