This old disease is becoming more common, but it's highly treatable and even curable — with the right care.
Unless you've experienced it firsthand or know someone who has, gout may seem like a museum piece of a disease — a condition that once afflicted corpulent men of means but doesn't get mentioned much these days. Even the name seems archaic and unscientific. Gout comes from gutta, Latin for drop, a reference to the belief that it was caused by a drop-by-drop accumulation of humors in the joints.
But gout is still very much with us, and the number of Americans affected seems to be increasing, partly because of the obesity epidemic. It remains a disease that mainly affects middle-aged and older men, although postmenopausal women are vulnerable too, perhaps because they lack the protective effect of estrogen. The diuretics ("water pills") that many people take to control high blood pressure are another contributing factor. Gout can also be a problem for transplant recipients. Cyclosporine, the immunosuppressant taken to reduce the chances of organ rejection, is to blame.
The encouraging news is that almost all cases are treatable. In fact, gout is one of the few curable forms of arthritis, an umbrella term for dozens of conditions that cause inflammation in the joints. The trouble is making sure people get the care they need and follow through on taking medications.
What causes gout?
Purines are a group of chemicals present in all body tissues and in many foods. Our bodies are continually processing purines, breaking them down and recycling or removing the byproducts. Uric acid is one of the byproducts and, normally, any excess leaves in the urine. But in some people, the system for keeping levels in check falls out of kilter. Usually it's because the kidneys aren't keeping up and excreting enough uric acid, but sometimes it's a matter of too much uric acid being produced.
Gout occurs when surplus uric acid coalesces into crystals, which causes inflammation that results in pain and other symptoms. (Technically, the crystals consist of sodium urate, although for simplicity's sake they're often referred to as uric acid crystals.) The crystals appear most often in the joints, but they may also collect elsewhere, including the outer ear, in the skin near the joints, and the kidney.
High concentrations of uric acid levels in the blood — the medical term is hyperuricemia — are necessary for the crystals to form. Yet many people with hyperuricemia never develop gout, and even when they do, they often have had high levels of uric acid in their blood for years without any symptoms. People with hyperuricemia with no symptoms might be coached to make lifestyle changes — losing weight would often top the list — but hyperuricemia by itself is usually not treated.
Dr. Hyon K. Choi, now at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and epidemiologists at Harvard have used data from the Harvard-based, all-male Health Professionals Follow-up Study to make a series of comparisons between the 730 men in this study who developed gout during a 12-year period and the vast majority of those in the study who did not. The result is an impressive dossier on the risk factors for gout, at least as they pertain to men.
Dr. Choi's findings on weight weren't surprising and fit the stereotype: gout is, in fact, a heavy man's disease. Eating lots of meat and seafood and drinking lots of alcohol spells gouty trouble. And the Homer Simpsons of the world are gout candidates: two-or-more-a-day beer drinkers are more than twice as likely to get gout as nonbeer drinkers, which makes sense, because beer contains a lot of purines.
Soft drink fanciers might be in the same gouty boat. High fructose intake was linked to gout in a Choi-led study published in 2008. Uric acid is one of the products of fructose metabolism, and there's good evidence from controlled feeding studies that fructose increases uric acid levels in the blood. Much of the fructose in today's American diet comes from the high-fructose corn syrup (which is about half fructose and half glucose) that's used to sweeten soft drinks.
High blood pressure is another major risk factor for gout. It gets complicated, though, because the diuretics taken to lower high blood pressure increase uric acid levels, so the treatment as well as the disease are associated with the disease.
Finally, while gout does run in some families, genes don't seem to play a pivotal role. Most people who develop gout don't have a family history of the disease.