Longitudinal studies in anything are incredibly valuable and incredibly rare. “Longitudinal” means following something and tracking changes over an extended period of time. One of the often noted short-comings of medical and pharmaceutical research is that there is no real longitudinal component. The studies don’t last long enough to see what the long term effects of a treatment or drug might be. That’s where the surprises lay in wait.
One gem is a longitudinal health study based in Framingham, Massachusetts. The study began in the 1940s and follows adults and their children.(1,2) The original focus was on the heart and cardiovascular system, but the study has generated data on a range of other topics.
The caveat of a study located in one place is that we don’t know if the results can be generalized to all Americans, or if there is something about that area of Massachusetts that makes it “different” in some way from the rest of the US. Thus far, the results seem to be generalizable.
The new data from the study concerns degeneration of the spine and the onset of spinal disc height narrowing and joint osteoarthritis. These are painful and potentially debilitating conditions that are a major source of medical costs in the elderly.
Researchers from Hebrew SeniorLife’s Institute for Aging Research, and Boston Medical Center have reported that one-third of people 40-59 years have image-based evidence of moderate to severe degenerative disc disease and more than half had moderate to severe spinal osteoarthritis.(3)
These conditions can affect both men and women, but are much more likely to worsen in women. Narrowing can impact nerves and cause bone and joint inflammation. It can be debilitating.(8) The problems start long before you know you have them.
The causes of degenerative disc disease simply aren’t know. They can be due to injury, or perhaps to normal wear and tear.(5)
How do you prevent osteoarthritis? The only ideas on the table now are the things that most people don’t want to do:
- Control weight
- Control blood sugar
- Ger regular exercise
- Wear protective gear
- Choose a health lifestyle (9)
- Mohamed Jarraya, Ali Guermazi, Amanda L. Lorbergs, Elana Brochin, Douglas P. Kiel, Mary L. Bouxsein, L. Adrienne Cupples, Elizabeth J. Samelson. A longitudinal study of disc height narrowing and facet joint osteoarthritis at the thoracic and lumbar spine, evaluated by computed tomography: the Framingham Study. The Spine Journal, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.spinee.2018.04.010
- Hebrew SeniorLife Institute for Aging Research. “One third of people aged 40-59 have evidence of degenerative disc disease.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 May 2018.