What do the elderly and moose have in common? According to experts, the same possible reason for their aches and pains. A new study shows that moose arthritis is linked with early malnutrition. The New York Times reports that an exceptional 50-year study of moose in Michigan shows that their osteoarthritis is linked to poor nutrition in the womb and beyond. And more importantly, the same seems to be true for people.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and it affects more than 27 million people. It is a degenerative condition which involves the breakdown of cartilage between bones. It is primarily related to aging, which causes the water content of cartilage to increase while the protein makeup of cartilage degenerates. Generally, most cases of osteoarthritis have no known causes. But new information out of Michigan may change that.

Experts studied an isolated moose population on Isle Royale on Lake Superior. They observed 1,200 carcasses of moose and found that many had hip arthritis almost exactly like humans. Biologists found that these arthritic moose were smaller than their healthier cousins. They concluded that these animals were born during times of famine. The arthritic moose had as much food as other moose during their adulthood, confirming that it was early nutrition that may have induced arthritis.

Dr. Joanne Jordan is the director of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina. As she told the NY Times, “It makes perfect sense. Osteoarthritis starts way before the person knows it, way before their knee hurts or their hand hurts. It’s very clear that we’re going to have to start looking back at things in the early life course.” 

And while people are not moose — some point out that people have a much longer growth period that moose and more time to “eat well” — experts feel that early nutrition could influence how bones and cartilage are formed in people as well. And it’s not just under-eating that can aggravate the condition. Obesity can also contribute to arthritis, as too much sugar can cause inflammation of the joints and put pressure on weight-bearing joints.

The study may lead to new nutritional guidelines for pregnant women and people wishing to protect them against the disease. Dr. David Barker is a British nutritional expert. As he told the NY Times, “What they [genes] do, how they’re expressed, is conditional on the rest of the body. The human being is a product of a general recipe, and the specific nutrients you get or don’t get.” Experts hope that this new information may go far in preventing further suffering from this disease.

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