Rural life may build denser bones

Rebecca Schultze

Rebecca Schultze

SDSU researchers are exploring whether or not the rural lifestyle that many South Dakotans lead results in healthier bones than the rest of the population.

Ethel Austin Martin Program researchers at SDSU first began their bone health studies among Hutterite colonies in eastern South Dakota.

The researchers concluded that, on average, Hutterite women, who have a physically demanding lifestyle compared to urban women, have a significantly higher bone density than other U.S. women of the same age. EA Martin Program Director Dr. Bonny Specker said that she believes the rural lifestyle of the Hutterites is one of the contributing factors to the higher bone density levels.

Hoping to expand on this knowledge, Specker is working on the South Dakota Rural Bone Health Study, a multi-year to determine the influences of the rural lifestyle on bone health and examining possible genetic connections with bone health as well.

“The whole idea is to look at how lifestyle and genetics affects both the peak bone mass and bone degeneration later in life,” she said.

Dr. Robert P. Heaney, John A. Creighton University Professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., said that it makes sense to look for a genetic component as well as a lifestyle component when examining bone strength.

“Think of your bones like muscles,” he said. “Work and exercise, good nutrition and genetics influence your muscles. Bones and muscles are very similar.

“You only have as much muscle as you use, and you only have as much bone as you use.”

Heaney said that some of the influence on muscles and bones comes from the genes passed on from parents, but a person can still strengthen those tissues or lose mass from those tissues.

With a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, 1,200 subjects between the ages of 20 and 65, and a mobile research unit that takes the laboratory on the road to the participants in the study, Specker said she hopes to determine just how big of a role genetics and lifestyle play in developing and maintaining healthy bones.

The study is set up to divide participants by sex, age group and lifestyle, resulting is 12 categories:

? Male, 20 to 40 years old, Hutterite

? Female, 20 to 40 years old, Hutterite

? Male, 40 to 65 years old, Hutterite

? Female, 40 to 65 years old, Hutterite

? Male, 20 to 40 years old, rural non-Hutterite

? Female, 20 to 40 years old, rural non-Hutterite

? Male, 40 to 65 years old, rural non-Hutterite

? Female, 40 to 65 years old, rural non-Hutterite

? Male, 20 to 40 years old, non-rural

? Female, 20 to 40 years old, non-rural

? Male, 40 to 65 years old, non-rural

? Female, 40 to 65 years old, non-rural

Specker said that for this study, “rural” is defined as “anyone who has spent 80 percent of their life on a working farm,” and “non-rural” is defined as “someone who has never lived on a working farm.”

Excluding any participants who have conditions that could affect the study outcome, such as someone with an illness affecting bone density, Specker wants about 100 people in each of the above categories for the study.

Specker is recruiting participants from eight eastern South Dakota counties for the study.

“In ‘rural’ we’ve recruited more than enough in the older population, but only 22 males and 22 females in the ‘rural’ younger population,” she said.

The non-rural participants are called randomly, but Specker said about half that are telephoned aren’t eligible for the study even if they would be willing to participate.

The South Dakota Rural Bone Health Study involves annual bone density measurements and body composition measurements. Every three months, study participants report what they ate in the last 24 hours (for dietary assessments) and what their physical activity levels have been in the past seven days (for physical activity assessment).

The research team will use the 20 to 40 year-old participants to examine peak bone mass: At what age the groups reach peak bone mass and what level the peak bone mass is at. Researchers will use the 40 to 65 year-old groups to look at the change in bone density with age: How much bone density deteriorates and at what rate.

The hypothesis for the part of the study involving the younger groups is that Hutterite and rural non-Hutterite adults will have a higher peak bone density compared to non-rural adults of a similar age as a result of high physical activity levels.

The hypothesis for the part involving the older groups is that Hutterites will have lower rates of bone loss than individuals living either a rural or a non-rural lifestyle.

Specker said that this type of multi-year study collects the information before the outcome is determined. People are not asked to look way back on their habits after they have already developed osteoporosis or else are already determined to have high bone density levels. In a sense, it reduces some amount of unintended bias from participants because they do not know the result of their lifestyle on their body, yet.

Bone is a living and growing tissue, constantly making new tissue and breaking down the old tissue.

During youth, bone gain is greater than bone loss, and as a person ages, he or she hits peak bone mass, usually as a young adult, and bone can not be replaced as quickly as it is lost.

Bone density measures the amount of mineral in bones. Low bone density is a conditions associated with osteoporosis. Osteoporosis develops when bones deteriorate, becoming fragile and easily fractured and is most often associated with post-menopausal women.