I think that really heavy weight lifting - pushing yourself really hard - will result in damage to the joints. But general living also results in damage to the joints. At both extremes - hard exercise or none at all - the choice might be between having more damage to the joints but better overall health (especially of the heart) or less damage to the joints and poorer health.
Most of the peasants of a few hundred years ago died worn out by hard work. Many of their skeletons show advanced arthritis of the joints.
A study of how vigorous physical activity (not weight training) affects the patella showed that those who engaged in activity were less likely to have cartilage damage to the knee. As the authors said:
'In this longitudinal study of community-based adults with no history of knee injury or disease, participation in vigorous physical activity, which was predominantly weight-bearing in nature, was associated with a reduced rate of patella cartilage loss and a trend toward a reduced risk for worsening patella cartilage defects. The benefits of participation in vigorous physical activity were only apparent for people without cartilage defects at baseline, and not observed for those with already established cartilage defects. This suggests that the benefits conferred by vigorous physical activity at the patellofemoral joint may be limited to people without existing cartilage defects that signify early joint damage. For people with baseline cartilage defects, vigorous physical activity was not significantly associated with subsequent changes to patellofemoral cartilage morphology.'
Arthritis and Rheumatism. 2009 Aug 15;61(8):1095-102.
Longitudinal effect of vigorous physical activity on patella cartilage morphology in people without clinical knee disease.
Teichtahl AJ, Wluka AE, Forbes A, Wang Y, English DR, Giles GG, Cicuttini FM.
The full free text is available.
But another one says:
'A questionnaire, designed to elict information about training programs, experience and injury profile, was administered to 358 bodybuilders and 60 powerlifters. This was followed by a clinical orthopedic and radiological examination. The upper extremity, particulary the shoulder and elbow joint, showed the highest injury rate. More than 40% of all injuries occurred in this area. The low back region and the knee were other sites of elevated injury occurrences. Muscular injuries (muscle pulls, tendonitis, sprains) were perceived to account for 83.6% of all injury types. Powerlifting showed a twice as high injury rate as bodybuilding, probably of grounds of a more uniform training program.'
Sportverletzung Sportschaden. 1989 Mar;3(1):32-6.
[Injuries and damage caused by excess stress in body building and power lifting].
[Article in German]
Goertzen M, Schöppe K, Lange G, Schulitz KP.
But many of these may have been caused by poor technique.
'Most of the injuries were in athletes undertaking free-weight training. Most injuries were in the upper limbs, particularly around the shoulder. Scintigraphic patterns of supraspinatus and bicipital tendons and also rotator cuff lesions were identified. Clavicular osteolysis, avulsion injuries, muscle damage, and vertebral lesions were also noted. Several abnormalities revealed by scintigraphy were clinically unsuspected.'
Clinical Nuclear Medicine. 1999 Dec;24(12):915-20.
Scintigraphic patterns of injury in amateur weight lifters.
Van der Wall H, McLaughlin A, Bruce W, Frater CJ, Kannangara S, Murray IP.
I think it is safer to use weights that you can do at least 5 or 6 reps with in the first set. I have also started to do some stretches for tendons. At the moment, I am only doing them for the biceps and wrist tendons. I just go slowly and easily. Tendons take time to adapt.
I agree with VeganEssentials and Gaia about listening to your body - and I don't mean the creakings and cracks.
I'm 58 and have been doing vigorous exercise since I was 15. I only returned to resistance training a few years ago but my body has been driven quite hard for decades. The only injuries I have are due to falls and to what are probably congenital injuries and malformations. And I damaged the medial cartilage in both knees thirty-odd years ago but they give me no trouble now.