Women who frequently drink fat-free or low-fat milk may delay progression of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee.

The old ads touting that “milk does a body good” have renewed meaning, based on new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital  that indicates women who frequently drink fat-free or low-fat milk may delay progression of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. Interesting to note is that the same results were not found in the men who participated in the study.

And while you may be thinking that this means other dairy products might have the same benefits, this is not the case. In fact, the study showed that women who ate cheese actually saw an increase in knee OA progression and that yogurt had no impact at all.

So exactly how much milk do you have to drink to see the potential benefit?

“Milk consumption plays an important role in bone health,” explains Brigham and Women’s biostatistician and lead author of the study, Bing Lu, MD, DrPH. “Our study is the largest study to investigate the impact of dairy intake in the progression of knee OA.”

2,148 people – 1,260 women and 888 men – participated in the study that involved an initial measure of each person’s OA progression (joint-space width) and then follow-up measures at 12, 24, 36, and 48 months.

As the intake of milk increased from none to less than three , four to six, and more than seven (8 oz.) glasses per week, the joint-space width in women also decreased by 0.38mm, 0.29mm, 0.29mm, and 0.26mm, respectively. Results persisted even after adjusting for disease severity, body mass index (BMI), and dietary factors.

Dr. Lu concludes, “Our findings indicate that women who frequently drink milk may reduce the progression of OA, but further study of milk intake and delay in OA progression are needed.”

OA is a common, degenerative joint disease that causes pain and swelling of joints in the hand, hips, or knee. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OA affects nearly 27 million Americans age 25 and older, with knee OA being more prevalent and severe in women. While medical evidence points to obesity, joint injury, and repetitive use from some sports as risk factors for incident knee OA, risks associated with OA progression remain unclear.

In a related editorial, “Got OA: Maybe Milk Can Help,” also published in Arthritis Care & Research, Shivani Sahni, PhD, and Robert McLean, DSc, MPH, from Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife Institute for Aging Research agree, “With the aging population and increase in life expectancy, there is an urgent need for effective methods to manage OA. The study by Lu et al. provides the first evidence that increasing fat-free or low-fat milk consumption may slow the progression of OA among women who are particularly burdened by OA of the knee, which can lead to functional disability.”

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