News April 2004 Issue

In the News: 04/04

Obesity Not Only Worsens Arthritis, It Can Cause It
Most arthritis sufferers are aware that being seriously overweight can put greater pressure on the body’s already painful joints. Now a recent study, published in Statistics Canada’s Health Reports, reveals that being obese increases the odds of contracting arthritis by 60 percent. Says researcher Kathryn Wilkins, “Our data [based on 4,787 participants age 40 or older] support the hypothesis that obesity leads to arthritis—rather than the reverse—by increasing stress on the joints.” Being overweight, but not to the point of obesity, was also associated with developing arthritis. For women, excess weight increased the risk of arthritis by 30 percent, while the pattern for men was not as significant. Obesity, say the authors, is the most recognized modifiable risk factor for arthritis, and controlling body weight offers the best potential for preventing it.

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Vitamin D May Help Prevent RA
Recent data from an Iowa Women’s Health Study raises the interesting possibility that vitamin D may help prevent rheumatoid arthritis. In an 11-year study of 29,368 women aged 55-69, which monitored eating habits, use of vitamin pills, and other lifestyle factors, 152 women developed RA. It was also found that a greater intake of vitamin D was inversely associated with the risk of RA. The results were apparent for both dietary and supplemental vitamin D, although the latter appeared to be a better source for the vitamin than food. Although the findings were based on lab studies of mice with RA, they suggest that vitamin D may act as an immunosuppressant, in which the vitamin is synthesized in the synovium (the fluid enveloping the joint) and acts to decrease T-cell responsiveness. Said Dr. Linda Merlino, who headed the study, “While it is possible that chance alone explains these results, there is a compelling biologic explanation for these findings.” Dr. Merlino added that although further studies will be required, “The results suggest a possible role for vitamin D in reducing the risk of an immunologic disorder.”

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Treating Depression Can Relieve Arthritis Pain, Too
Treating major depression in older people with osteoarthritis helps to relieve pain and other symptoms of joint disease, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The 1,001 participants involved in the research were all over the age of 60 and suffered from both arthritis (primarily osteoarthritis) and depression. Half were chosen for a special depression-management program in which a psychologist worked closely with each person’s primary doctor and psychiatrist to treat the depression with medication and/or psychotherapy. The remaining half of the participants received “usual care.” This included medication and/or psychotherapy, but no depression-care manager was involved. Those in the special management program reported less pain, a greater ability to function, and better overall quality of life than those who received usual care. The finding suggests that if you suffer from depression as well as arthritis, obtaining the best psychological care you can get may also relieve your joint pain.

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MRI Looms As Increasingly Important Tool For OA Treatment
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) may soon become the diagnostic tool de rigueur for the understanding and treatment of osteoarthritis. A recent study conducted at Monash University Medical School in Australia explored the use of MRI to measure cartilage loss in knee OA. The researchers found that measurements of cartilage volume were significantly simplified, making it easier to measure the effects of new OA treatments. The cost of MRI scanners, the study’s authors predict, will decrease in coming years and the potential of MRI will become more widely understood. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is currently embarking on trials of new scanners, in which the agency will be comparing results with standard radiographic procedures. Says NIH’s Dr. Gayle Lester, “It is hoped that MRI will provide a more sensitive index for both disease onset and progression.”