Many people still think of gout as "the disease of kings" and associate this exquisitely painful form of arthritis with debauchery and gluttony, a la Henry VIII. However, as versatile performer Jim Belushi knows all too well, the truth is that the disease runs in families. What's more, a healthy lifestyle is often not enough to prevent or control it. Approximately eight million people in the U.S. live with gout, which usually strikes the big toe joint but can affect other joints as well. While the condition most often occurs in men, women can also develop it, especially after menopause.
May is Gout Awareness Month and May 22nd is Gout Day, so ThirdAge talked with Jim about how he suffered for years and finally got help for his gout.
ThirdAge: When was the moment you knew you had to see a specialist about your gout attacks?
Jim: It was December 30th 1997 in Reno, when I was there to perform. Until then, I was too macho to admit how bad the gout was. I had put myself on a strict diet – no red meat, no red wine – because I had learned that high levels of uric acid were the cause. For a while, that seemed to do the trick and the attacks would come and go. There would be the redness and the swelling and the pain, and then it would all subside. But in Reno, I actually had to have people push me around in a wheelchair. That really hurt my ego.
ThirdAge: Did you go through with your performance?
Jim: Yes, but I was leaning on a stool the whole time and I only had a sock on my left foot. Even a light touch was agony and I couldn't put my shoe on. I'm usually very aggressive on stage so that was when it hit me that the gout was getting in the way of what I love most. I had to do something. I called a rheumatologist and went for a check up. He put me on a medication that has worked very well for me. I haven't had a flare-up in years. I'll be 59 in June and I'm as active as ever. Right now I'm getting ready to tour with my band, The Sacred Hearts.
ThirdAge: You're also involved with a gout awareness program, right?
Jim: Yes, it's called "Check Out Your Gout" and the web site has a lot of good information. My message is that you shouldn't put off getting help. You're compromising your quality of life and the gout could also lead to bone and joint destruction.
ThirdAge: Does anyone else is your family have gout?
Jim: My sister has it. It's not for men only. Also, my aunt had it before she died.
ThirdAge: Do people need to go to a specialist?
Jim: Definitely. A rheumatologist will know exactly what level of medication you need but a primary care doctor might not. Taking too much can cause fluctuation in uric acid levels. If the level drops too quickly, that can actually bring on an attack rather than prevent it.
ThirdAge: Is there anything else you'd like to tell people?
Jim: If Belushi can do it, you can do it! Women, tell your husbands that! I'm as male a guy as you'll ever run into, but I got past my ego and now I wish I had done it years earlier.