Bone Health

How a Healthy Skeleton Protects Against Illness

Your skeleton is more important to your overall health than most of us realize, make no bones about it! That’s because while our bones play a convenient role in keeping us upright, new research shows that our bones perform significant and crucial roles tied to our longevity, vulnerability to disease, and even our day to day habits. Scientific data now reveals that the skeleton plays a key role in the production of a hormone behind the fight-or-flight instinct, factors into our risk of dementia, and can even influence life and death when severe illness, like sepsis, rears its unwelcome head.

Take for example the fact that a critical hormone (osteocalcin) is manufactured by the cells responsible for building healthy bones (osteoblasts).  According to Gerard Karsenty of Columbia University, experimental data shows that when mice are bred without the ability to make osteocalcin, amazingly they do not exhibit fright or stress. While not feeling stress or fright may seem like a good thing at first glance, there is a definite downside to not feeling fear. As Karsenty notes, without osteocalcin the mice don’t react sufficiently to danger, making them easy prey.

We know that when the brain senses a threat, it directs the skeleton to pump out osteocalcin,  primarily produced by bone, into the bloodstream so that we are primed to go into action to defend ourselves. Furthermore, Karsenty’s research shows that the presence of osteocalcin can enhance athleticism and heighten endurance by increasing the ability of our blood cells and muscles to take in glucose, which in turn fuels the body.

Other exciting data ties osteocalcin to healthy brain development. Research in Frontiers in Endocrinology reveals that mice who are born with a lack of osteocalcin have abnormal hippocampus development. Namely, this brain structure (which is crucial in memory development) is smaller than normal and less developed. Additionally, the study authors found that osteocalcin likely plays a part in the production of chemical brain messengers such as serotonin, which regulates sleep, mood, and memory as well as dopamine, a chemical involved in reward and motivation.

In light of these findings which show a connection between bone health and other medical issues, scientists such as Dr. Chris Murgatroyd are now asking if age-related bone degradation is linked to dementia and cognitive decline. Murgatroyd works in the molecular neuroscience department at Manchester Metropolitan University and has shared the results of his investigation into this question in the journal Age and Ageing.

“Bone and cognition are strongly related,” according to Murgatroyd. “Age-related reductions in bone health are seen along with deterioration in cognition.” His conclusion is based on a study he conducted with 225 older women in 2016. At that time he found that the lower a subject’s blood level of osteocalcin, the higher the risk was for performing poorly on cognitive tests. The data should be interpreted with caution however, as the findings do not indicate whether declining levels of osteocalcin in older bones cause cognitive decline, or if the two events happen coincidentally. 

Murgatroyd thinks it is possible that the link between poor cognition and low osteocalcin could be caused by low levels of vitamin D, as studies reveal that vitamin D levels tend to decrease as we age. Part of the reason for this is that the skin becomes less adept at manufacturing the vitamin following exposure to sunlight.  In related news, experts at Tongji University in Shanghai found that patients given osteocalcin following a stroke had less brain damage, with doctors speculating that the hormone prevents stroke-related inflammatory damage. While these two studies show the healthy upside of having adequate levels of osteocalcin present, other studies have revealed the downside to low levels of osteocalcin. For instance, one study revealed that intensive care patients faced with life-threatening illnesses such as sepsis are significantly more likely to die if they also experience rapid bone thinning.

How can you take care of your bones so that they, in turn, take care of you? First of all, you should always consult with your health care professional about any medical concerns you may have. Only a doctor can properly evaluate and diagnose medical conditions. In the meantime, there are several things you can to boost your bones:

  •       Get plenty of exercise! Studies show that moderate exercise such as walking briskly triggers the release of osteocalcin.
  •       Cut back on fizzy drinks: Numerous studies suggest that carbonated soda may harm bones, especially in women. Researchers at the University of California looked at the health records of 72,000 women and concluded that drinking two or more carbonated drinks a day increases the risk of hip fracture by more than 25%.
  •       Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep is correlated to a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. One study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that of 11,000 post-menopausal females, those who slept fewer than five hours a night had thinner bones throughout the body versus those who slept seven hours each night.

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