Michelangelo suffered from osteoarthritis, the most common joint condition, which causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. But new research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine finds that continuing his artistic work — painting as well as hammering and sculpting — helped preserve his hands from completely succumbing to the condition until his death.

By analyzing some of Michelangelo’s later self-portraits, when he was between the ages of 60 and 65, the researchers could see that his left hand had some joint degeneration compared to his earlier self-portraits, which didn’t show any osteoarthritis in his hand. In addition, examining some of his letters showed that in 1552 he had written to his nephew complaining of the discomfort of writing.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopo del Conte
This portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopo del Conte, painted in 1540 when Michelangelo was 65 years old, may show the signs of osteoarthritis in his left hand. Wikimedia

“It is clear from the literature that Michelangelo was afflicted by an illness involving his joints,” Dr. Davide Lazzeri, a specialist in plastic reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Villa Salaria Clinic in Rome, said in the press release. “In the past this has been attributed to gout but our analysis shows this can be dismissed.”

Amazingly enough, Michelangelo continued working up to six days before his death, right before he turned 89. He continued creating masterpieces and didn’t stop hammering sculptures well into old age, despite the fact that it was likely the hammering and chiseling that caused the osteoarthritis in the first place, the researchers write.

Can staying active improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis? While there’s no real scientific evidence showing that hammering marble into masterpieces will preserve your hands, the Arthritis Foundation encourages patients to stay physically active to ease arthritis pain — whether that involves walking outdoors, swimming, stretching, standing up often when sitting for long periods of time, or doing yoga. Indeed, a recent study found that arthritis sufferers who tried yoga saw a 20 percent improvement in mood and pain.

Staying active can help build muscles and resistance, which will protect the joints, the foundation states. However, steer away from activities that involve pounding your feet or joints — like running on concrete, kickboxing, or step aerobics. The low-impact activities, like swimming and biking, are safer and just as effective.

Michelangelo’s pounding and hammering still somehow preserved his hand strength. It’s possible that simply remaining determined and motivated in his old age to continue working had a beneficial effect on his body, whereas people who live sedentary lifestyles tend to regress more quickly.

“The diagnosis of osteoarthritis offers one plausible explanation for Michelangelo’s loss of dexterity in old age and emphasizes his triumph over infirmity as he persisted in his work until his last days,” Lazzeri said in the press release. “Indeed, the continuous and intense work could have helped Michelangelo to keep the use of his hands for as long as possible.”

Source: Lazzeri D, Castello M, Matucci-Cerinic M, Lippi D, Weisz G. Osteoarthritis in the hands of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2016.