Study finds that knee arthritis rates have doubled in just a few generations

knee replacement surgery

A recent study from Harvard University resulted in a mass of media attention: people born after World War Two are twice as likely to develop knee arthritis as those born in generations beforehand.

The study, which involved an examination of more than 2,000 ancient skeletons dating as far back as 6,000 years and cross-referencing the data with information on human knee health from the mid-nineteenth century right up to the modern day. And the results concluded that knee arthritis is clearly on the rise. As Professor Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University pointed out, “The most important comparison is between the early industrial (1800s) and modern samples. Because we had data on each individual’s age, sex, body weight, ethnicity and, in many cases, their occupation and cause of death, we were able to correct for a number of factors that we considered important co-variants.”

It’s not necessarily a weight problem

So, what’s the cause for this? The obvious answer would be a comparable rise in lifespans and obesity – after all, pronounced weight gain clearly puts extra pressure on the knees, and by simply being around longer, one runs a greater risk of contracting any particular ailment – but according to the experts, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Before this study it was assumed without having been tested that the prevalence of knee osteoarthritis hadn’t changed over time. We were able to show – for the first time – this pervasive cause of pain is actually twice as common today than even in the recent past,” said Dr Ian Wallace, also of Harvard University. “But the even bigger surprise is it’s not just because people are living longer or getting fatter, but for other reasons likely related to our modern environments.”

Everything from refined sugar in our diet or the fact that we are pounding pavements could be a potential factor.

Counting the cost of arthritis

What dangers these ‘modern environments’ harbour, however, is the bone of contention – and the race is on to pinpoint the causes. And the stakes are high, as a study from Arthritis Research UK pointed out last month. According to their figures, arthritis will cause 25.9 million lost working days from this year to 2030, costing the country £3.43 billion.

As their report – dubbed The Nation’s Joint Problem – points out, one in six people in the UK suffer from arthritis – a figure that is predicted to rise to one in five by 2050 – and treatment and care of arthritis sufferers is expected to soak up an estimated £118.6 billion over the 2020s.

A more positive conclusion drawn from the study is that the researchers are pointing the way towards the finding of ways to prevent the onset on knee osteoarthritis, going so far as to draw comparisons between it and heart disease. “Knee osteoarthritis is not a necessary consequence of old age. We should think of this as a partly preventable disease,” claimed Professor Lieberman. “Understanding the origins of knee osteoarthritis is an urgent challenge because the disease is almost entirely untreatable apart from knee replacement surgery – and once someone has knee osteoarthritis it creates a vicious circle.

“People become less active which can lead to a host of other problems – and their health ends up declining at a more rapid rate. Right now, our society is barely focusing on prevention in any way, shape or form, so we need to redirect more interest toward preventing this and other so-called diseases of ageing,” concluded Professor Lieberman.

Until a plan of action has been mapped out, it makes sense to give yourself the best shot at avoiding knee arthritis by going for what we currently know: keeping tabs on weight gain, strengthening the quads through exercise, avoiding unnecessary injury by warming up and cooling down properly, and maintaining a healthy diet. However, if you’re suffering from the aches and pains associated with knee arthritis, arrange a consultation with a knee specialist to discuss your options.