Academic Minute Podcast

John Polk, University at Albany – Osteoporosis Prevention

Preventing bone loss is key for older adults.

John Polk, associate professor and director of the program of human biology at the University at Albany, details the best way to avoid it.

Canadian, moved to US for graduate study at Stony Brook University (focus on human anatomy and comparative primate biomechanics). Post-doc at Harvard in Human Evolutionary Biology. 18 years as faculty at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where I taught anatomy in medical schools and Biological Anthropology courses and developed collaborative and interdisciplinary research with mechanical engineers, kinesiologists and psychologists.

Osteoporosis Prevention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, osteoporosis affects an estimated 10 million people aged 50 and older in the United States. About 80% are women. A further 43 million people have low bone mass putting them at increased risk for osteoporosis in the future.

Both bone loss and osteoporosis lead to decreases in bone strength and resilience, as well as increased risk of bone fracture.

We tend to start to think about osteoporosis and bone loss as we get older, or perhaps when we learn that a parent or grandparent has been diagnosed. And in older age, this condition is extremely hard to reverse.

The locations most commonly affected by bone loss include the vertebrae in the lower back, and hips, and fractures at these sites, can be very debilitating.

The question is: What can you do now to lower your risk of osteoporosis and bone loss? The answer is simple – exercise.

Like many things in life, the sooner we act, the greater our chance of success.

And the earlier we start to exercise the better. Growing children and teenagers, can more easily add bone mass than people who have already stopped growing. So physical activity in our youth can have long-term benefits.

In addition, a large body of research has demonstrated that regular exercise helps to maintain bone mass after you’ve stopped growing. And it doesn’t have to be strenuous: simple activities like regular walking can help to maintain bone mass in adults.

Recent work in my lab (in collaboration with researchers at the University Illinois) demonstrates that walking twice a day for 20 minutes can stimulate increases in bone density and bone thickness in young individuals, and that these changes increase the strength and stiffness of the bone in our joints.

In summary: the more we load our limbs by exercising when we are young, the more bone we grow, and the more we will have to lose as we age.

And second: regular exercise during adulthood helps to maintain bone strength and the lower our risk of bone loss and osteoporosis later in life.

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