Ann Rheum Dis 71:655-660 doi:10.1136/ard.2011.154021
  • Clinical and epidemiological research
  • Extended report

Life course body mass index and risk of knee osteoarthritis at the age of 53 years: evidence from the 1946 British birth cohort study

Open Access
  1. Diana Kuh1
  1. 1MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2DMRC Headley Court, Epsom, UK
  3. 3MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Andrew K Wills, MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, University College London, 33 Bedford Place, London WC1B 5JU, UK; a.wills{at}
  • Accepted 14 August 2011
  • Published Online First 6 October 2011


Introduction The authors examined how body mass index (BMI) across life is linked to the risk of midlife knee osteoarthritis (OA), testing whether prolonged exposure to high BMI or high BMI at a particular period has the greatest influence on the risk of knee OA.

Methods A population-based British birth cohort of 3035 men and women underwent clinical examination for knee OA at age 53 years.Heights and weights were measured 10 times from 2 to 53 years. Analyses were stratified by gender and adjusted for occupation and activity levels.

Results The prevalence of knee OA was higher in women than in men (12.9% (n=194) vs 7.4% (n=108)). In men, the association between BMI and later knee OA was evident at 20 years (p=0.038) and remained until 53 years (OR per z-score 1.38 (95% CI 1.11 to 1.71)). In women, there was evidence for an association at 15 years (p=0.003); at 53 years, the OR was 1.89 (95% CI 1.59 to 2.24) per z-score increase in BMI. Changes in BMI from childhood in women and from adolescence in men were also positively associated with knee OA. A structured modelling approach to disentange the way in which BMI is linked to knee OA suggested that prolonged exposure to high BMI throughout adulthood carried the highest risk and that there was no additional risk conferred from adolescence once adult BMI had been accounted for.

Conclusion This study suggests that the risk of knee OA accumulates from exposure to a high BMI through adulthood.


  • Funding AKW, SB, RC, CC, RH and DK were supported by the UK Medical Research Council. KRM was supported by the Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Health, USA. RJC was supported by the Ministry of Defence, UK. The funders of the study had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation or writing of this manuscript.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the Medical Research Council ethics committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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