Osteoporosis is often considered an affliction that affects older individuals, particularly post-menopausal women, but a Cal Poly Pomona researcher is finding that weak, brittle bones can begin much earlier— sometimes striking college-age women who might otherwise seem healthy.
Michael Liang, a professor in the kinesiology and health promotion department, has been researching the bones of young women since 2002, when he received a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Prior to that, he worked as a researcher at NASA, which is keenly interested in the study of bone strength because of the detrimental effect space travel has on skeletons.
Liang says a great deal of research has been focused on the relationship between post-menopausal aging and osteoporosis, but comparatively little research has been aimed at pre-menopausal women.
“What happens to the young?” he asks. “That’s my concentration.”
Finding the answer involves the use of dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) machines, which use very-low energy X-rays to create an image of a person’s bones. The DXA machine is able to calculate bone density as it creates that image.
Liang has been using student volunteers from the university in his research. The results of his research on women with low body-mass indexes have been sobering.
“Some of the research subjects, ages 18-24, are already at risk of having the fractures often seen in osteoporosis,” he says. “When they’re older, they’re going to be that much worse.”
One risk factor is a lack of vitamin D, either through insufficient sources in their diet or inadequate exposure to the sun. Another factor is low dietary calcium.
A sedentary lifestyle is another risk factor, Liang says. Weak bones are often most pronounced in “those who are skinny but never get any exercise,” Liang says.
The most effective way to build strong bones is impact aerobics, such as running, according to Liang’s research, but he acknowledges that it’s not always convenient for women with busy schedules or lifestyles.
“Some women say, ‘Why do I have to get dressed, go to the gym and have people watch me?’” Liang says.
For those women, another form of exercise, such as vibration platforms, might be an alternative. The devices, which the user stands on, send powerful vibrations through the feet and into the spine and leg bones, which are very susceptible to osteoporosis-related injuries.
“You don’t need to go running or playing basketball,” Liang says. “You only need five to 15 minutes on these platforms to enhance your bone density.”
Still, Liang says living an active lifestyle is one of the best ways to prevent weak bones from developing.
“We want to show females that they need to do exercise,” he says.