We all know that heavy drinking can lead to a host of health risks, but who would have guessed that broken bones are among them? It turns out that doctors have begun connecting alcohol abuse with an increased likelihood of broken bones, and this doesn’t just refer to accidents like drunken falls or car accidents while driving impaired.
Statistics suggest that a heavy drinker’s risk of bone fracture is equal to that of a non-drinker a decade or two older than them. And if they do break a bone, they face longer healing times and more complications. The reasons may not be entirely clear – even to medical professionals – but experts have some ideas. Scientifically speaking, alcohol interferes with the activity of osteoblasts (the cells that synthesize new bone growth), while osteoclasts (the cells that remove old, damaged bone tissue) continue to work as usual, leaving small cavities where new tissue was supposed to form. Research also seems to indicate the problem increases along with the amount of alcohol consumed.
Study findings were recently presented at American Society for Bone and Mineral Research’s annual meeting. Here’s what researchers learned: The body generates new bone tissue by recruiting immature stem cells to the site of a break, where they develop into osteoblasts and mature bone cells. In those who drink too much, one of the main two proteins that the body uses to bring these stem cells to the fracture site is present in much lower levels. Additionally, the alcohol-exposed study mice seemed to suffer from a general problem that affects a range of cellular functions: oxidative stress.
While fractures did eventually heal, even in those who had been drinking to excess, these findings should serve as a warning. It’s likely that heavy drinkers’ bones will be weaker and have more difficulty healing. Fortunately, the problem is reversible if you simply abstain from alcohol.
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By Wendy Lee Nentwig