Osteoporosis Myths


University of Arkansas  

Researcher Shatters Myths about Osteoporosis


Lori Turner, assistant professor of health sciences   (501)575-4670, lori@c...

Allison Hogge, science and research communications officer   (501)575-6731, alhogge@c...

PHOTO AVAILABLE: A photo of Dr. Turner conducting bone density readings on a student can be downloaded at http://pigtrail.uark.edu/news/.




FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- This Halloween, the only skeleton you need to worry about is your own, says a University of Arkansas professor whose latest research is shattering the idea of osteoporosis as a "little old lady's" disease.

Dr. Lori Turner, assistant professor of health sciences, recently initiated a study to measure bone density in college-age women. By examining the bone mass and lifestyle habits of younger women, Turner hopes to find a correlation that will make the causes of osteoporosis more clear.

"Women typically get diagnosed with osteoporosis late in life -- usually after they've already experienced bone fractures," said Turner. "But we believe there are lifestyle factors that can predispose a woman to the disease up to 50 years before she's diagnosed."

That means women in their early 20s could be forming habits that will come back to haunt them later.

Doctors have long known that factors such as diet and exercise can influence a woman's bone mass early in life, but Turner and her project team are among the first researchers ever to assess bone density in young women.

Two other studies -- one conducted in the U.S., the other in Japan -- have approached the issue by examining bone mass in women's forearms. But only Turner's team has looked at the hip and spine.

"Because a woman's arm and wrist vary so much in proportion to her body, taking a reading of the forearm will give you a more variable measure. You run the risk of false readings," Turner explained. "Our study measures density in the hip and spine -- the gold standard for diagnosing osteoporosis."

During the initial phase of her study, Turner hopes to collect data from 100 female college students between the ages of 18 and 25. Bones continue to grow in size and density until 25-30 years of age. Once they hit their peak, the bones stop growing and start their gradual decline.

Most osteoporosis studies focus on post-menopausal women -- when bone loss accelerates due to a lack of estrogen. By targeting younger women, the UA researchers are collecting measurements of peak bone mass, before age and hormone-levels can start their deteriorating effects.

"One of the most effective preventative measures against osteoporosis is to help women reach the highest possible peak bone mass before they start to lose it," said Turner. "This study will help us determine the factors that contribute to and detract from bone density."

Each participant in Turner's study completes a survey detailing her eating habits -- including the quantity of dairy products she consumes -- and her exercise regimen. The survey also requests information about how often the student diets and whether or not she smokes.

Turner then takes a scan of the subject's hip and spine, using a dual energy x-ray absorptometry -- or DEXA -- machine. A computer uses this scan to measure the mineral content of the bones, then compares the measurement to a national dataset containing the statistics of more than 40,000 women.

Eventually, Turner hopes to garner enough funding for a study of 1,000 young women. But even her smaller sample is providing information that could help young women save themselves from osteoporosis.

More than 20 million women in the United States suffer from osteoporosis, and the cost of treating them exceeds $13 billion per year. According to Turner, women could be saved from both suffering and expense if they take preventative measures while still young.

"There are lifestyle habits that women can adopt to improve their bone mass before it becomes a problem," she said.

Studies have long shown that consuming enough calcium and performing weight-bearing exercise can help women build and maintain a healthy bone mass. But Turner's research indicates that certain cultural factors may be eating away at women's strong foundations.

"One of the biggest concerns is that young women are trying to be excessively thin. They're skipping meals and cutting dairy products from their diets because they worry about calories and fat," said Turner. "Not only are their bones starved of calcium, but they're not being stimulated to grow by the weight of a normal body."

In addition, the presence of vending machines in every high school and college building has made it easier and more acceptable for students to drink soda pop rather than milk at lunch.

"We're encouraging kids to consume sugar and caffeine when they could be gaining nutrients by drinking milk," Turner said.

Turner believes the lack of preventative concern for osteoporosis stems from two commonly-held myths. The first is the belief that osteoporosis is a natural part of aging. While it's true that millions of women suffer from the condition, she says, many of them could have avoided it by taking precautionary measures in their youth.

The second myth is that osteoporosis is not a severe disease.   According to Turner, osteoporotic fractures in the spine can cause extreme pain and deformity -- sometimes collapsing a woman's posture until her ribcage overlaps her pelvic bone. In addition, 20 percent of women who experience hip fractures as a result of the disease die within one year.

"Women with osteoporosis lose their mobility and their independence. They're forced into nursing homes where they often become depressed and fearful of moving around," said Turner.

If women are to avoid such a fate, more must be learned about how to build bone density during youth and prevent its loss in old age. Turner's research team has taken the first step.

"The challenge of studying osteoporosis is that so many factors contribute it -- social, physical, dietary," Turner said. "We're going to have to understand all of those before we begin to understand the disease."

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