Our objective was to examine the relationship of a self-reported physician diagnosis of arthritis with disability in elderly community dwelling women. Data from a representative sample of 1541 women aged 65 and above were analyzed to determine the prevalence and associations of a self-reported physician diagnosis of arthritis with other chronic conditions and difficulty performing physical activities. A history of physician diagnosed arthritis was reported by 902 (58.5%) women. Women with arthritis were significantly more likely to report fair or poor perceived health, as well as a physician diagnosis of angina, myocardial infarction, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, lung disease, and hearing and vision problems. After adjustment for age, race, education, marital status, and comorbid/geriatric conditions, arthritis was significantly associated with difficulty in the following 13 activities: raising arms, lifting < or = 10 pounds, walking 2-3 blocks, bathing or showering, climbing 10 steps, grasping, getting in or out of a bed or chair, dressing, using the toilet, preparing meals, doing personal shopping, heavy and light housework. We conclude that physician diagnosed arthritis is a common problem among elderly community dwelling women and is associated with difficulties in physical activity.