Wow! At last, a magic pill that delivers all the life-saving benefits of exercise and none of the exertion or sweaty clothes!
That’s essentially the confounding conclusion of a US epidemiological study that found glucosamine supplements “may reduce overall mortality about as well as regular exercise does.”
According to a statement from the Department of Family Medicine at the West Virginia University, the researchers assessed data from 16,686 adults who completed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2010. All of the participants were at least 40 years old.
This data was merged with 2015 mortality figures.
After controlling for various factors – such as participants’ age, sex, smoking status and activity level – the researchers found that taking glucosamine/chondroitin every day for a year or longer was associated with a 39 per cent reduction in all-cause mortality.
It was also linked to a 65 per cent reduction in cardiovascular-related deaths – which includes deaths from stroke, coronary artery disease and heart disease, our biggest killer.
“Once we took everything into account, the impact was pretty significant,” said Professor Dana King, chair of the department, and lead author of the study.
What is glucosamine?
Glucosamine sulfate is a naturally occurring sugar that serves as the primary building block for proteoglycans, large molecules in cartilage that give it viscoelastic (buffering) properties.
In supplement form, glucosamine is harvested from the shells of shellfish or synthesised in a laboratory.
It’s often combined with chondroitin, another sugar that serves as a major constituent of cartilage and other connective tissue.
Glucosamine/chondroitin combination supplements are a popular remedy for osteoarthritis and other joint conditions. Overall, though, results from pain-related studies are mixed and there is little to no evidence that the supplements work to prevent the deterioration of cartilage.
Can couch potatoes finally rejoice?
Professor King has stressed that the supplement should not be taken as a substitute for exercise.
“Does this mean that if you get off work at five o’clock one day, you should just skip the gym, take a glucosamine pill and go home instead?” he said, in a prepared statement.
“That’s not what we suggest. Keep exercising, but the thought that taking a pill would also be beneficial is intriguing.”
In fact, this is a story where the researcher was a regular user of the supplement – and became personally curious as to whether it actually delivered any benefit.
“I’m in a local cyclists’ club, and we go for rides on weekends,” he said.
“One day I asked the other cyclists if they took glucosamine, and everyone did. And I thought, ‘Well, I wonder if this is really helpful?’ That’s how I got curious about it.”
Professor King stressed that because this is an epidemiological study –rather than a clinical trial – “it doesn’t offer definitive proof that glucosamine/chondroitin makes death less likely.”
He does call the results “encouraging” – and they are supported by previous similar studies.
How might this work? A previous study offers a clue
A 2014 study found that supplemental glucosamine promoted longevity in ageing mice by approximately 10 per cent due to improved glucose metabolism. Researchers found the compound worked “by mimicking a low-carb diet in elderly mice reflecting human retirees.”
Professor Michael Ristow of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology, ETH Zurich, concluded: “Unlike with our longer living mice, such an association is no definite proof of the effectiveness of glucosamine in humans.
“But the chances are good, and since unlike with most other potentially lifespan-extending drugs there are no known relevant side effects of glucosamine supplementation, I would tend to recommend this supplement.”
We say: OK, but get off the couch, and keep moving.