Objective: Alterations of cartilage morphology and mechanical properties occur in osteoarthritis, but it is unclear whether similar changes also take place physiologically during aging, in the absence of disease. In this in vivo study, we tested the hypothesis that thinning of knee joint cartilage occurs with aging and that elderly subjects display a different amount of cartilage deformation than do young subjects.
Methods: We evaluated 30 asymptomatic subjects ages 50-78 years. Morphologic parameters for the knee cartilage (mean and maximum thickness, surface area) were computed from magnetic resonance imaging data. Results were compared with those in 95 young asymptomatic subjects ages 20-30 years. Deformation of the patellar cartilage was determined after the subjects performed 30 knee bends.
Results: There was a significant reduction of patellar cartilage thickness in elderly women (-12%; P < 0.05), but not in elderly men (-6%). Femoral cartilage was significantly thinner in both sexes (-21% in women, -13% in men; P < 0.01), whereas tibial cartilage thickness displayed only nonsignificant trends (-10% in women, -7% in men). Patellar cartilage deformation was -2.6% in elderly women and -2.2% in elderly men. These values were significantly lower (P < 0.05) than those in young subjects.
Conclusion: We confirmed the hypothesis that knee cartilage becomes thinner during aging, in the absence of cartilage disease, but that the amount of reduction differs between sexes and between compartments of the knee joint. We show that under in vivo loading conditions, elderly subjects display a lower level of cartilage deformation than do healthy young subjects.