December 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC researchers awarded $2.25 million to study link between arthritis, emotions

CHAPEL HILL - The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a five-year, $2.25 million grant to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers who are studying links among osteoarthritis and anxiety and depression. What they find might help reduce the pain, loss of independence and reduced quality of life the bone and joint ailment often causes.

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, afflicts almost a million North Carolinians, more than 21 million people nationally and many adults over age 65, research shows.

Faculty members in UNC’s schools of public health and medicine and department of psychology will conduct an investigation to learn about predictors and consequences of such links, which recent studies have shown to be more common and harmful than previously thought, said principal investigator Dr. Brenda M. DeVellis.

"Failure to consider the co-occurrence of either anxiety or depression with a medical illness like osteoarthritis can compromise diagnosis and treatment of patients as well as the health of the overall public,” said DeVellis, professor of health behavior and health education as well as psychology.

Collaborating with her will be co-principal investigator Dr. Joanne Jordan, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, and Dr. Robert DeVellis, research professor of health behavior and health education and of psychology. All are members of UNC’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center.

Along with university colleagues, the three will draw on two previous waves of data collected as part of Jordan’s continuing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health-funded Johnston County Osteoarthritis Project. That research is the first and largest study ever done of arthritis in U.S. black and white rural communities. They also will conduct extensive new interviews with study participants at two different times.

A major goal will be to examine the relationship between osteoarthritis and the emotions and coping strategies of people with the ailment, Brenda DeVellis said. Researchers hope to identify participants with depression or anxiety or both and identify factors that increase or protect against distressing emotional responses to osteoarthritis and learn how they affect people’s health.

"Our past work has shown that depression has made people with osteoarthritis in their knees, for example, feel more pain than others and be more likely to become disabled,” Jordan said. "Now, we’ll look more at how arthritis affects people as a whole. We want those who participate in our work to know that we understand depression and anxiety are real, not just something they have imagined and that these emotions affect everyone to varying degrees, not just them.”

Most previous comparable studies have depended on groups of patients visiting clinics for treatment of arthritis or other illnesses such as gastrointestinal or heart disorders, DeVellis said. Besides being very large, the new study will have the advantage of assessing residents of rural communities who aren’t necessarily visiting health-care providers.

"In some ways, we believe this study could become the gold standard for understanding what osteoarthritis means, especially to older Americans,” DeVellis said. "The bottom line is that we’re trying to identify things that can help us help folks with the health problems they’re having. It may be that some people have adopted useful coping strategies we can identify and eventually share with millions of other Americans."

Others involved in the new study include Dr. Shannon Currey, associate director of the numerical sciences core at UNC’s Thurston Arthritis Center, Dr. Abigail Panter, associate professor of psychology, and public health graduate students Katherine Vatalaro and Dr. Mahyar Mofidi.

Note: Dr. Brenda DeVellis can be reached at (919) 966-3908, Dr. Joanne Jordan at 966-0559 and Dr. Robert DeVellis at 966-0557.
School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 966-7467
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