Finnish researchers have discovered an association between osteoarthritis in even a single finger joint in men and the likelihood they will die of cardiovascular disease.
Women with osteoarthritis in the fingers aren't home free by any means, the study found. They had a modestly higher risk of dying from heart disease if they had arthritis in one finger or in symmetrical joints, the Finns report in the February issue of Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
A team led by Dr. Mikko Haara, a researcher at the University of Kuopio in Kuopio, Finland, looked at a population sample of 8,000 Finns, aged 30 and above, and took hand X-rays of 3,595 subjects. The subjects were gathered from 1977 to 1989; by the end of 1994, 897 had died. Then Haara's team looked at causes of death and whether the subjects had arthritis.
Men with symmetrical arthritis of the fingers weren't at increased risk of dying from heart disease, but those with arthritis in a single finger joint were 42 percent likelier to die.
Women were at increased risk whether they had a single digit involved or symmetrical joints, with a 25 percent higher risk for symmetrical joints with arthritis and 26 percent for a single joint.
The biggest surprise, says Haara, was that "osteoarthritis in any finger joint significantly predicted cardiovascular deaths in men."
Exactly why this occurs isn't known, Haara says. But "even if the mechanism remains unclear, it is well known that body mass index" is tied to both osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease. Of the 3,595 participants, 2,139 had body mass indexes above 25, which is considered overweight.
Dr. James Cerhan, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic who has reported the same association previously in women, says the study is interesting. However, he adds, the finding for men requires further research and replication with a bigger sample.
"It's interesting because this is such an understudied area," he says. "It's very consistent with most of what is in the medical literature for some of the larger epidemiological studies."
Haara says that even though the association between hand osteoarthritis and increased risk of death from heart problems isn't thoroughly understood, "this study shows clearly how important are the healthy ways of living. Try to avoid getting overweight by exercising enough and eating low-fat food, and you have a lower risk both of osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease and you will live a longer life."
If you already have arthritis, he says, ask your doctor about anti-inflammatory medicines to delay the progress of the disease and about a moderate exercise program.
"The strongest take-home message in this paper is the importance of controlling obesity," Cerhan says. While the public may be aware of the connection between obesity and arthritis of the knee, he says, they are perhaps less aware that excess weight can also be to blame for stiff fingers.
For more on osteoarthritis, visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases or the Arthritis Foundation.