Osteoarthritis of the knee is becoming more and more common. And most health experts have claimed the rise stems from increasing longevity and body mass index. But no real evidence supports this theory…it’s just another “legend of the Fall.”
In fact, a new study suggests that living longer, or carrying a little extra weight, has nothing to do with increasing rates of arthritis in the knee. I’ll tell you what I recommend for chronic knee pain in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at some research…
Researchers examine knees for real evidence
For this new study, researchers took a little bit of a different approach. They conducted post-mortem examinations of more than 2,000 skeletal remains.
Of course, I’m trained as an anthropologist. So, I know that direct visual examination of skeletal remains opens new vistas when it comes to understanding bone diseases.
Bones also tell us a lot about human health. Indeed, anthropological and archaeological studies on skeletal remains reveal many findings never detected clinically or on X-ray or imaging studies.
In fact, I conducted studies on skeletons in the Hamann-Todd Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with a colleague during the early 1980s. We examined ribs in skeletons of people who had died of tuberculosis (TB) during the 1800s and early 1900s. We found skeletal lesions associated with primary pulmonary TB that had never been observed before by anyone.
Of course, Donald Johanson, the Curator of the museum collections at the time, had just come to fame for finding partial skeletal remains from a three-million-year-old hominid called “Lucy.” Actually, the phrase “partial skeletal remains” is generous. You really had to use your imagination to piece her all together.
But the press made such a fuss about Lucy that the other rich treasures in the abundant research collections went ignored — except by me. Graduate students with good imaginations lined up to get a chance to work on Lucy with Dr. Johanson. But they weren’t interested in our work as guest researchers at all. I remember one graduate student brought in her pet raccoon, causing havoc on the one day we were trying to photograph our own findings.
Fortunately, this new study was not so chaotic.
Arthritis myths busted — by skeletons
The remains examined in this new study came from 176 archaeological specimens dating back 300 to 6,000 years.
The study also included remains from people who lived during the early industrial era (1800s to early 1900s) or the modern postindustrial era (late 1900s to early 2000s). These individuals participated in cadaver donation programs for medical research, so the researchers also had their medical data. So, they were able to control for other variables as well, including age and body mass index (BMI).
The researchers visually inspected the remains to assess for osteoarthritis. A main indicator of this condition is the presence of “eburnation,” or polish, caused by direct bone on bone contact.
Turns out, the rate of knee arthritis in the modern, postindustrial population was 16 percent — 2.1 times higher than early industrial and prehistoric people. People from the prehistoric era had higher rates (eight percent) than those in the industrial era (six percent).
It is considered that osteoarthritis in a population relates to the amount of wear-and-tear from strenuous activity. People have had far less strenuous lives in the modern, post-industrial era than they did in the early industrial and prehistoric eras — so why the much higher rates of arthritis?
Overall, the researchers concluded that neither increases in longevity, nor increases in body mass index can explain the doubling of knee arthritis in the U.S. since the mid-20th century.
In my view, there are several factors that have influenced arthritis rates in the modern era…
For one, nutritional health began to decline dramatically in the mid-20th century, as people moved away from the farming lifestyle. Plus, fruits and vegetables today contain fewer nutrients due to the declining quality of the soil and modern industrial agricultural practices in the U.S. In addition, many people now have sedentary occupations. So, perhaps, bones and joints are less strong or “fit” due to alterations in diet and daily habits.
Secondly, more and more people with generally sedentary lifestyles now run episodically and excessively on ill-prepared joints, repetitively pounding down on hard artificial surfaces. I think it only makes sense that excessive running on artificial, man-made surfaces inevitably causes increased wear and tear on joints — a common-sense definition (and cause) of osteoarthritis.
These abnormal patterns of exercise were more common in the cohort of people who were over 50 years old and died during the late 1900s and early 2000s. This same cohort experienced double the rate of arthritis.
A little bit goes a long way
As it turns out, men and women who exercise a total of just one to two hours a week gain as many benefits, in terms of increased longevity, as those who exercise seven and a half hours a week. But excessive exercisers also put themselves at risk for developing short-term injuries and long-term joint damage. Excessive exercise can also harm the heart muscle, nervous system, kidneys, and GI tract, as I often report.
Unable to explain their own findings, the researchers in the new skeletal study simply said, “we need more studies.” But it seems clear to me: The old myths about arthritis don’t have a leg to stand on.
For a drug-free plan for easing and eliminating arthritis pain, check out my Arthritis Relief and Reversal Protocol. Also, make sure any joint support supplement you choose includes my ABCs of joint health — ashwaganda, boswellia and curcumin.
“Knee osteoarthritis has doubled in prevalence since the mid-20th century,” Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, July 12, 2017; 114(35): 9332–9336