Surge in Total Knee Replacements for Boomer Women

Experts say boomer women more active than previous generations.

ByABC News
December 21, 2011, 4:10 PM

Dec. 21, 2011— -- Gone are the days of 50-something women who define their new decade by staying home and joining a book club or two. These women are more likely to be found moving and shaking at the gym, on the dance floor or trekking on some adventure abroad.

The baby boomer generation has truly coined 50 as the new 30. The generation is the most active of any other in the same age group has ever been. But unfortunately, their joints haven't caught on to their mantra.

Active lifestyles mean achy joints which have led baby boomers to become the fastest-growing group to undergo total knee replacements.

Knee replacement surgeries have doubled over the past decade, and more than tripled in the women between the ages of 45 and 64.

Women seem to be more affected than men. In 2009, nearly 63 percent of women underwent total knee replacement surgery, most of whom were between ages of 40 and 80, according to Nationwide Inpatient Sample, a database sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Nearly 37 percent of men, mostly within the same age group, underwent total knee replacement surgery in 2009.

Dr. Nick DiNubile, clinical assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, said just a decade ago most of his patients needing knee replacements were age 70 or older. But now, a majority of his patients are much younger.

"I coined the term boomeritis," said DiNubile. "It's the baby boomer's idea of I'll do anything I have to do to stay active."

Medications are the first line treatment for knee joints that are seriously damaged by arthritis or injury. But when it becomes difficult to walk or climb stairs, and the pain is unbearable both during activity and at rest, some specialists may suggest surgery.

Many women overuse their joints and wait longer to go to the doctor, which could be leading to the spike in surgeries, DiNubile said.

Despite a hip replacement, a torn meniscus and a soon-to-have knee replacement, Nancy Bruechert, 52, says she won't stop her active lifestyle.

"The idea of getting old and not being able to function by yourself is terrifying," said Bruechert, a mother of two. "I'd go nuts."

During the procedure, surgeons remove the damaged cartilage surrounding the knee along with parts of the underlying bone. They are replaced by metal that's fit into the bone and a spacer is fit in between to the bone's surface to create a gliding surface. But surgery is no quick fix.

More than 90 percent of people who undergo total knee replacement experience a dramatic reduction in pain, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

But it's difficult to return to the strenuous physical activities. Like other artificial implants, the plastic spacers can wear with daily use, and overuse, and putting a lot of weight on the knee can speed up that process.

Most surgeons advise against high-impact activities, such as running, jogging, jumping, and high-impact sports for the rest of one's life after surgery.

Still, Bruechert says that for boomer women like herself who consider themselves the new 30s, the surgery may be just as good a shot as any.

"When my knee hurts, I feel ancient," said Bruechert. "When I say my age out loud, I don't feel it."