To enjoy life to the fullest and be as active as possible, you need healthy joints. Otherwise, you’ll be burdened with the pain and stiffness that makes millions of people’s life hard every day, especially older people. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 30 million people suffer from osteoarthritis.
What is a joint anyway? It’s the space between two bones and the surrounding capsule that encloses and protects it. The ends of the bone are encased in a layer of connective tissue that helps cushion and protect the ends of bones so they don’t rub together when you move a limb. Joints are of several types within the human body but the most common is called a synovial joint because this type of joint contains synovial fluid. The synovial fluid helps to lubricate the joint and reduce friction. A classic example of a synovial joint is the knee joint.
When you’re young and healthy, your joints, including your knees, are their healthiest and most resilient. The cartilage is strong but still flexible. Plus, it completely covers the bones, so you don’t experience joint pain or stiffness. But, that changes as you age. With the passage of time, the composition of the cartilage that covers the bones changes – and not for the better.
How Joints & Cartilage Ages
Cartilage is made up of three main components – elastin, collagen, and proteoglycan. Collagen is a fibrous tissue that makes the cartilage firm and resistant to tearing while elastin gives cartilage stretch or elasticity. Proteoglycans are proteins that have sugars attached to them. They help to keep the cartilage hydrated and allow it to withstand compressive forces.
It sounds like a good system, doesn’t it? But, as you age, the proteoglycans change in structure, causing the cartilage to dry out and become more prone towards damage. As times goes on, the cartilage may become stiff and brittle. Cartilage is not an easy tissue to repair since it doesn’t get good blood flow to supply it with oxygen and nutrients.
One manifestation of joint aging is osteoarthritis. As the cartilage changes due to aging and normal wear-and-tear, it starts to wear away. As cartilage gradually erodes and becomes thinner and more irregular, the bones don’t move as easily past one when you move the joint. In severe cases, the cartilage completely is completely worn down and the bones rub against one another. Ouch! The entire joint slowly stiffens to the point that movement is painful. Although osteoarthritis is primarily a degenerative disease due to aging and damage to the cartilage, there also appears to be an inflammatory component.
Which joints are the most likely to be impacted by osteoarthritis? You’re most likely to experience osteoarthritis pain and stiffness in the knees, hips, feet, spine, or hands. In severe cases, osteoarthritis can completely destroy a joint. If you look at an older person’s hands, you might see that the joints in their fingers are swollen and deformed due to osteoarthritis.
Fortunately, not everyone develops stiff, painful joints but the risk increases with age. You may have heard that women are more prone toward arthritis than men but it’s more a function of age. Men are more likely to develop osteoarthritis before the age of 45 but the incidence is higher in women later in life. Estrogen may offer a protective effect up until menopause. After that, the incidence goes up.
Osteoarthritis also tends to run in families. People with an inherited tendency toward osteoarthritis may have genetic errors in cartilage metabolism that makes it difficult to make healthy, new cartilage at a fast enough rate. Of course, you don’t have control over your genetics but there are things you can do to slow joint aging and lower your risk of symptomatic osteoarthritis.
Keep Your Joints Healthy
To help your joints age in a healthy manner, avoid injuring them. People who have had a joint injury are at a higher risk of developing arthritis in that joint. Watch your weight too! Carrying extra weight places substantially more force on your joints and increases the likelihood of damage. When you walk on flat ground, the force your knees endure is roughly equivalent to 1.5 times your body weight – and when you climb stairs the force on your knees increases to up to 5 times your body weight. Even modest weight loss can lower your risk of developing painful knee joints.
Lifestyle matters too. One of the most important things you can do to keep your joints healthy as the years go by is to strength train. Why strength training? As you age, you lose muscle mass. That’s a bad thing because strong muscles help support and protect joints against injury. Contrary to popular belief, exercise, even high-impact exercise, doesn’t seem to increase the risk of osteoarthritis in people with healthy joints. In fact, studies show that people who exercise tend to have healthier joints.
What about Diet?
There’s not a surefire way to slow joint aging or prevent osteoarthritis through diet but studies suggest that you may be able to relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis by eating an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory diet that emphasizes plant-based foods. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity that may help calm joint pain and stiffness. Walnuts and flaxseeds are rich in plant-based omega-3s with anti-inflammatory activity and fatty fish contains long-chain omega-3s that may help reduce pain and inflammation.
Plant-based foods are also rich in fiber, another dietary component linked with a reduced risk of osteoarthritis. Two large studies that together tracked around 6,200 people showed consuming more fiber was associated with a lower risk of painful knee osteoarthritis. Yes, diet matters.
The Bottom Line
Your joints age and, sometimes, that leads to joint stiffness and pain due to osteoarthritis. But, there’s a lot you can do from a lifestyle standpoint to keep your joints healthy. You can’t control all the factors that impact joint health but regular physical activity, including strength training, and staying a healthy body weight are two ways to dramatically lower your risk. So, keep living and eating healthy!
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Arthritis”