Diabetes and Arthritis: a Challenging Combination

For older adults dealing with type 2 diabetes, co-occurring physical problems can make disease management and healthy living a challenge. One of those most challenging-and common- diagnoses is arthritis.

Researchers from the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided to look further into the issue. Their goal was a simple but important one: finding out how many adults with diabetes had arthritis. And of those who had both diabetes and arthritis, the scientists wanted to know how many had to limit their daily activities because of arthritis.

To get their information, the researchers crunched data gathered in the U.S. National Health Interview Survey, which was conducted from 2008-2010. The findings were stark: Of adults with diabetes, 48.1 percent had arthritis. And of that group, 55 percent had activity limitations due to that arthritis.

For this writer, this particular mix of diseases has particular personal relevance. My mother dealt with rheumatoid arthritis for more than two decades before her death. And I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in elementary school. For our family, then, there was likely an autoimmune disease factor passed between the generations.

In these type 2 cases, however, the researchers weren’t as concerned with genetic links. Such connections may be harder to find in that population, anyway. That’s because type 2s are often older and heavier-factors that either increase arthritis risk or worsen outcomes for the condition.

Instead, the study authors focused on the role of physical activity, which is crucial to both controlling diabetes and keeping the worst side effects of arthritis at bay. In the conclusion to the study, they wrote, “Physical inactivity was associated with the prevalence of arthritis and much more strongly associated with (activity limitations) among adults with arthritis. . . . Adults with arthritis need additional guidance on how to overcome the barriers for physical activity that they encounter with this disease.”

There is much here that demands untangling in the future. For instance, are there factors beyond physical activity that put people at risk for both diabetes and arthritis? Can pre-existing arthritis, by limiting physical activity, contribute to the development of type 2? Can diet, lifestyle, or other factors contribute in some way?

As is often the case with medical research, the study raises many questions and suggests intriguing avenues for further research and exploration. But in the meantime, if you or someone you know has both diabetes and arthritis, make sure to talk with your doctor or healthcare team about ways to stay active. It can only help.


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