Connecting the dots between daily activities and easing inflammatory arthritis symptoms

Biomarkers and subjective assessments are being examined to determine if creative, social and other everyday pursuits could improve health outcomes.

Hobbies and other everyday activities add to our enjoyment of life, and a first-of-its-kind research study is examining whether they could also have positive health effects for the approximately one in five Canadians ages 15 and older with inflammatory arthritis. 

Characterized by an immune response that can cause swelling, soreness and stiffness in one or more joints in the body, inflammatory arthritis is an umbrella term for conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, gout and lupus arthritis.  

“For the increasing number of people with chronic illnesses, such as inflammatory arthritis, being given tools to effectively control some of their symptoms outside of hospitals, clinics and pharmacies can further support quality of life,” says Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researcher Catherine Backman.

“This study will help us answer the question of whether there are other activities we can add to the toolbox to promote health and well-being.” 

Backman is a co-principal investigator of the study alongside doctoral candidate Flora To-Miles. Their research involved administering questionnaires to over 100 people living with inflammatory arthritis in British Columbia who provided subjective information about their lifestyles, hobbies, health and life satisfaction.

“We are looking for patterns that could point to a connection between better health outcomes and characteristics in projects we pursue in daily life.” 

The research team at the Arthritis Research Canada collected pinprick blood samples to analyze participants’ telomere length, which is a biological marker of cellular aging. Telomeres are structures located at the end of chromosomes in our cells that protect chromosomes from damage. 

Though telomere shortening is a natural part of the aging process, conditions that cause chronic inflammation, such as inflammatory arthritis, stress and diabetes1, can speed up this process. This can cause cells to age and die prematurely, and lead to a reduced lifespan. 

Catherine Backman is an occupational therapist and professor of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia.

“It appears that healthy lifestyles—what we do every day—may help preserve telomere length over time,” says Backman. “What is not yet known is whether activity choices, such as hobbies, could fall into the category of healthy lifestyle activities that prevent premature telomere shortening.” 

The impact of creative and social projects on a chronic condition

Previous studies have shown improved symptomatology for people with inflammatory arthritis who performed certain forms of physical activity and self-management strategies.

“We now know that patients with inflammatory arthritis should exercise to reduce inflammation, improve health status and reduce other health risks, such as heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure,” says Backman.
 

Flora To-Miles is an occupational therapist and PhD candidate in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC.

“Creative and social activities could have an added therapeutic effect alongside other treatment measures, ideally supplementing clinical care and empowering individuals to take the reins on some of their health care needs,” says To-Miles. 

Research participants noted physical activities and caregiving among their regular activities. They also reported pursuing many creative activities, such as journaling, music, knitting and photography. 

“There is much to learn about the physiological and psychological effects everyday activities could have on patients with inflammatory arthritis and other chronic illnesses,” notes To-Miles.

“The long-term goal of this research is to develop activity recommendations and guidelines for self-management strategies for people with inflammatory arthritis, as well as their occupational therapists and other care providers.” 

1 ScienceDirect - Telomere Shortening

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