The pathological changes in osteoarthritis--a degenerative joint disease prevalent among older people--start at the molecular scale and spread to the higher levels of the architecture of articular cartilage to cause progressive and irreversible structural and functional damage. At present, there are no treatments to cure or attenuate the degradation of cartilage. Early detection and the ability to monitor the progression of osteoarthritis are therefore important for developing effective therapies. Here, we show that indentation-type atomic force microscopy can monitor age-related morphological and biomechanical changes in the hips of normal and osteoarthritic mice. Early damage in the cartilage of osteoarthritic patients undergoing hip or knee replacements could similarly be detected using this method. Changes due to aging and osteoarthritis are clearly depicted at the nanometre scale well before morphological changes can be observed using current diagnostic methods. Indentation-type atomic force microscopy may potentially be developed into a minimally invasive arthroscopic tool to diagnose the early onset of osteoarthritis in situ.