by Craig Weatherby
New and prior research covered in the article assigns partial blame for arthritis to the standard American diet … which is already linked to everything from diabetes, cancer, and dementia to heart disease and obesity.
The news reported in the article is that a 50-year research project among the moose of Canada's Isle Royale finds that the animals with osteoarthritis were put at greater risk by poor nutrition early in life (Peterson RO et al. 2010).
The scientists involved say their findings may help explain human osteoarthritis, for which clear risk factors have remained elusive... even thought it is the most common type, afflicting one out of every seven adults.
What makes the moose study especially significant is that it dovetails with evidence from human populations that have suffered sharp declines in nutrition, followed by rises in rates of osteoarthritis.
That could mean that some people's arthritis can be linked in part to nutritional deficits in the womb, childhood, and adolescence.
And, according to some scientists the Times spoke to, nutritional quality through adulthood may continue to affect arthritis risk.
Human history suggests poor nutrition as a key risk factor
Even more than the moose report, three passages in the Times article stood out to us (Belluck P 2010):
“Bones of 16th-century American Indians in Florida and Georgia showed significant increases in osteoarthritis after Spanish missionaries arrived and tribes adopted farming, increasing their workload but also shifting their diet from fish and wild plants to corn… similar patterns occurred when an earlier American Indian population in the Midwest began farming maize [corn].”
“British scientists studying people born in the 1940s found low birth weight (indicating poor prenatal nutrition) linked to osteoarthritis in the men's hands.”
“…Dr. David Barker, a British expert on how nutrition and early development influence cardiac and other conditions, said ‘studies of people [who were] in utero [still in the womb] during the Great Chinese Famine' of the late 1950s found that ‘40, 50 years later, those people [developed arthritic] disabilities.'”
Interestingly, the Times spoke with a veterinarian who said she saw ‘abnormal joint and tendon development from excessive nutrition' in horses overfed ‘in utero or in the postnatal life,' probably ingesting ‘too much of the wrong type of sugar that may cause levels of inflammation.'”
Excess sugar degrades joints and skin
That finding fits perfectly with the fact that excess dietary sugar of any kind promotes inflammation and a process called “protein glycation” (We do not know why the vet said “wrong types of sugar,” because they're all unhealthful when eaten in excess).
Protein glycation yields compounds called advanced glycation end products or AGEs, which generate free radicals that attack joint and other connective tissue cells.
Sugar-driven protein glycation also causes “cross-linking” of the collagen fibers that constitute cartilage and other connective tissues, including skin. Collagen cross-linking stiffens cartilage and makes it less resilient (Antioxidants found in grape skin/seeds and pine bark—called OPCs or pycnogenol—can help prevent cross-linking).
Genes likely play a role
Of course, as in all things biological there is more to arthritis risk than diet.
As the Times wrote, paraphrasing orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Bales from the University of California, “Much is unknown about nutrition's relevance. Isle Royale moose, for example, also seem to have genetic predispositions for arthritis, suggesting that nutrition might be amplifying or jump-starting the genes” (Belluck P 2010).
It's no doubt true that genes play a role in risk for osteoarthritis.
But since we don't know which genes help or hurt, or who has them at birth, it only makes sense to get all Americans on a better diet… from childhood on.
Dr. David Felson, an arthritis expert at Boston University School of Medicine, made this cogent comment: “It would be helpful to know if we want to make sure pregnant moms are taking certain vitamins or if you need to supplement with such and such nutrition” (Belluck P 2010).
Given that we know that omega-3s are important to bones, the article in today's issue concerning the lack of them in toddler's diets is even more cause for alarm.
Belluck P. Moose Offer Trail of Clues on Arthritis. The New York Times. August 16, 2010. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/health/research/17moose.html
Peterson RO, Vucetich JA, Fenton G, , Drummer TD, Larsen CS. Ecology of arthritis. Ecol Lett. 2010 Jul 7. [Epub ahead of print]