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Flexibility Lowers Arthritis Risk in Older Women
Older women who are "double-jointed" -- or those who have
super-flexible joints -- are less likely to have arthritic knees than
their peers, according to a study of British women.
It’s not clear from the study if women
were born with extra-flexible joints or obtained them through a
lifetime of exercise and stretching, according to Tim Spector, a
professor of rheumatology at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.
However, the findings suggest the
retaining flexibility in old age can ward off arthritis, he says.
"Our research suggests that both the
innate or the exercise route (to flexibility) both seem to help prevent
arthritis -- so exercise and stretching should be encouraged," said
"In our study we only tested the women
once and can’t really separate hypermobile women who remained flexible
from normal women who exercised and stretched to become more flexible
than their sedentary peers," said Spector. People with hypermobile
joints, as it’s known medically, have an expanded range of motion. They
can often pull their thumbs down to touch their wrists and have elbows
that hyper-extend when they stretch out their arms. And the knees of
double-jointed people may bow backwards when they stand up straight.
It’s the looseness of the structures
surrounding the joint that allow it to have more motion, similar to a
hinge on a door that allows it to swing open and closed.
In some cases, hypermobility is a sign of
inherited connective tissue or bone disease, and some studies had
suggested it might actually increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions joints breaks
down, often leading to pain, swelling and loss of mobility.
In a study of
716 women in England, 79 had some degree of joint hypermobility, a
proportion consistent with the overall population. Most of these women
showed increased flexibility in the spinal region and hip joints --
allowing them to easily bend at the waist and place their hands flat on
The women, ages 53 to 72, were part of the
Chingford Study in London. In the ongoing study, predominantly
middle-class white women have received regular x-rays and bone mineral
density measurements since 1988.
Spector and his colleagues found that bone
mineral density was three percent higher in the hips of the hypermobile
group compared with other women. There was no difference in spine bone
mineral density between the two groups of women, according to the study
in the current issue of the Journal of Rheumatology.
The researchers also looked for
osteoarthritis in the hands, knees, spine and hips of hypermobile
women. Compared to their normal-jointed counterparts, hypermobile women
showed a reduced risk for arthritis in the knees only.
People born with looser joints may be
drawn to physical activity, which may also play a role in arthritis
risk, according to Spector.
Women who were taller and more hypermobile
in the study were also more physically active throughout their
lifetimes. Spector says that may explain the differences in bone
mineral density and arthritis between the hypermobile women and those
with less flexible joints.
"We can’t prove it -- as it’s a chicken
and egg situation -- but our data certainly strongly suggest an effect
that may be related to fitness and flexibility, rather than exercise
per se," he said.
This means that hypermobility in an aging
population may be an advantage and a marker of fitness when it persists
later in life.
Spector recommends that all postmenopausal
women concentrate on flexibility, exercise regularly and keep their
body mass index -- a ratio of weight to height -- below 25. He says all
these can help prevent osteoarthritis.
The American Academy of Orthopedic
Surgeons and the American Geriatrics Society recommend that adults
engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. In
addition to the cardiovascular benefits, they say exercise strengthens
bones and reduces joint and muscle pain.
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