The bone health hero: Mighty Mouse

albino rat isolated on white background

The L.A. Times has a feature that I just love. It’s called “Rodent of the Week” and it reports each week on new studies that come out featuring discoveries made by laboratory research on rats and mice.

Now, I know that animal experimentation is a touchy subject for some, but there’s no denying that mice play a big role in bone health research. NASA even sent some up on the last space shuttle mission so they could study — what else? — bone loss! The reason they’re so important is that mice go from infancy to old age in two years, giving scientists an excellent opportunity to see how the structure of their bones changes at different stages of life under different conditions. And what I’ve found when I look at mouse-based bone research is that a lot of the data that’s being collected supports many of the Better Bones perspectives. For instance, consider these three studies that were presented at the 2011 ASBMR Forum on Aging and Skeletal Health, held at the NIH:

Development of brittle bones in the aged is not just a matter of bone mineral loss, but is also caused by over-mineralization of, and loss of, the matrix of bone collagen and protein that forms the “living” part of bones. From the Better Bones perspective, this makes absolute sense. While researchers most often talk about the loss of bone mineral density as we age, by volume bone is half living protein collagen. When healthy and abundant, this living protein matrix gives flexibility to bone. When deficient or over-mineralized, it makes bone more fragile. Obtaining all the nutrients essential for healthy bone collagen is paramount to bone health as we age.

Adequate protein is essential for maintaining bone strength in the elderly.I’ve written about the need for balanced protein intake in articles and blog posts, and this study supports my contention that protein is an important nutrient for maintaining healthy bones. It’s a message that bears repeating, though because it’s estimated that up to 50% of elderly in the US have inadequate protein intake. Low protein directly worsens age-related loss of bone mass and bone strength, while these problems are positively influenced by supplementation with select amino acids (proteins). Adequate intake of protein should be a priority for all elderly persons, and amino acid supplementation used when the diet falls short of protein or when digestion is very weak.

Mechanical loading (exercise) builds bone strength, even in the aged. It has often been suggested that the skeleton lose its ability to respond to loading (exercise) with age. These authors’ mice studies have shown that the bones of mice across the lifespan, even in old age, are responsive to the effect of exercise. In other words, exercise will help to strengthen bone at any age. They did find, however, that the short-term response may be greater in younger mice, as observed by the rapid increase in bone volume upon loading in the youngest mice. To me, that means that while it’s possible to improve bone strength even into your 80s and 90s, it’s far better to start caring for your bones when you’re young and get greater “bang for your buck” — so it’s never too late or too early to think about bone health!

These are just three aspects of bone health toward which our small, furry friends have contributed data. There is undoubtedly a great deal more to follow — and not just from the mice sent up with Atlantis. I’m confident that much of what comes out of this research will confirm what I’ve been saying all along: the keys to strong bones are found in what we feed them (our bones, not the mice) and how we use them. Nutrition, exercise, and a mindful lifestyle make for strong, flexible bones even into extreme old age. (I wonder if anyone has ever taught a mouse how to meditate… hmmm…)

 

References:

Wynee, L et al., ASBMR, 2011 poster 4.

Isales, C., et al. The impact of dietary protein on bone mass and strength in the aging animal. ASBMR, 2011 poster 17.

Silva, M et al. Anabolic response of mice to mechanical loading during growth and maturation. ASBMR, 2011 poster 21.

 


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