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Women who drank up to six glasses of low-fat or fat-free milk a week delayed the effects of arthritis in their knees, a large new study finds. Unfortunately, the same effect was not found in men.
In addition, researchers led by Bing Lu, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, found that eating greater amounts of cheese had the opposite effect, speeding the progression of knee arthritis in women, while eating yogurt had no effect on arthritis in either men or women.
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An estimated 27 million Americans - and more than a third of adults over 65 - have osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease. Knee arthritis, in particular, is more common and severe in older women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lu called the study, which was funded by the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the "largest to investigate the impact of dairy intake on the progression of knee osteoarthritis."
As he told Reuters, "Milk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, dairy calcium and protein, and has long been recognized for its important role in bone health," which is why researchers hypothesized that it could slow the progression of knee arthritis.
Beginning in 2002, researchers looked at 1,260 women and nearly 900 men in their early 60s who had knee arthritis and provided information about their dietary habits, including milk consumption.
Researchers used X-rays of the participants' knees to measure the space between bones in the joint that would indicate the progression of the disease. Participants' knees were checked at the start of the study and again 12, 24, 36 and 48 months later.
More than 90 percent of those in the study drank either fat-free or low-fat milk. Researchers compared those who drank no milk, fewer than three glasses a week, four to six glasses a week, and more than seven glasses a week. They found that drinking up to six glasses a week had the most impact in slowing progression of the disease in women, but had no such effect in men.
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Other dairy products did not have the same benefits. Yogurt consumption seemed to have no effect on joint deterioration, while women who ate more cheese had faster deterioration.
The researchers acknowledged in the study, which was published online April 7 in Arthritis Care & Research, that they didn't determine a cause-and-effect reason for their findings, merely an association. They did adjust the data to take into account other possible risk factors for osteoarthritis, including smoking and obesity.
As to whether people with osteoarthritis should drink milk, the New York Times reported that Lu had a simple answer: "Yes," he said. "Low-fat or fat-free milk."
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