Osteoarthritis: New Discoveries and Solutions

Though it may seem that everyone from their twenties upwards makes complaints – either jokingly or in all seriousness – about the joint aches and pains of “old age,” the reality is that osteoarthritis is becoming increasingly more common in the U.S., and not for the reasons you may suspect. The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis affects over 30 million U.S. adults[1] and knee osteoarthritis has more than doubled in prevalence since the mid-20th century.[2] In this post, we’ll review the basics of this disease, reveal evidence that points towards why it’s increasing, and highlight some of the best ways to fight it.

 

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the gradual deterioration of cartilage in one or more joints over time. Cartilage is intended to protect the ends of bones and allow for easy movement of joints, so osteoarthritis causes the smooth surfaces of bones to become rough and irritate the surrounding tissues.[3] This results in pain in the joint and potential inflammation. Risk factors include age, gender, genetics, obesity, certain occupations, and joint injury.

 

Why are rates of osteoarthritis increasing?

Over the last few decades, higher levels of osteoarthritis – especially in the knees – has frequently been assumed to be the result of high body mass index (BMI) and longevity in the U.S. population.[4] A high BMI means more stress is placed on weight-bearing joints,[5] and similarly, more “wear and tear” on joints in seniors is often considered the price we pay for living longer. However, a team of researchers from Harvard University recently discovered that there’s more to the story; after studying human skeletons from the present day all the way back to 4,000 B.C., the researchers discovered that even when correcting for BMI and longevity, the lowest rates of osteoarthritis were in prehistoric humans.[6] Since “wear and tear” was probably the greatest in hunter-gatherer communities of the past, this conclusion hardly holds water for osteoarthritis of today.[7]

What the Harvard researchers believe is that the modern increase in osteoarthritis is largely due to a lack of physical activity, especially when young. Healthy cartilage is developed in children through physical activity, since exercise keeps joints like knees healthy and strong through diffusing nutrients into cartilage.[8] With modern children spending much of their days sitting through critical stages of physical development, they grow up to have joints that are less likely to function properly when old.[9] Other contributing factors to increased levels of osteoarthritis in modern adults may be diet and the increase in sports injuries[10]

 

What can we do?

Stay active. If you have osteoarthritis, find low-impact exercise opportunities to improve your quality of life without aggravating painful joints and while reducing your risk of developing other diseases.[11] While weight isn’t the only factor affecting the development of osteoarthritis, a study last month proved that patients with the disease who achieved a 10% or greater weight loss experienced reduced cartilage degeneration compared to patients who achieved only moderate or no weight loss.[12]

For those worried about developing osteoarthritis in the future, and especially for parents concerned about raising their children to be healthy adults, exercise is equally, if not more, important. Creating and keeping healthy cartilage is critical to joint health.

 

Osteoarthritis can affect anyone, and it the research shows that it will continue to plague us if we keep living an extremely sedentary lifestyle. Take that extra dog walk, staircase, or mile around the track and your body will thank you for it later.

[1] “Osteoarthritis,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, July 6. 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/osteoarthritis.htm

[2] Robert, Leo, “Why is Osteoarthritis Increasing?”, MedPage Today, Aug. 20, 2017, https://www.medpagetoday.com/rheumatology/arthritis/67369

[3] “Causes of and Risk Factors for Osteoarthritis,” healthline.com, n.d., https://www.healthline.com/health/osteoarthritis-risk-factors

[4] Ibid

[5] “Osteoarthritis”

[6] Harris, Richard, “6,000-Year-Old Knee Joints Suggest Osteoarthritis Isn’t Just Wear and Tear,” Aug. 15, 2017, NPR.org, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/15/543402095/creaky-knees

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] “Osteoarthritis”

[12] May, Brandon, “Substantial Weight Loss Associated With Reduced Cartilage Degeneration in Osteoarthritis,” Clinical Pain Advisor, Nov. 30, 2017, http://www.clinicalpainadvisor.com/rsna-2017/cartilage-degeneration-osteoarthritis-whole-organ-mri/article/710531/?check=true

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