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Is there a Link between Female Adolescent Drinking & Osteoporosis?

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

Here’s some good news. There has been a decline in heavy drinking among male high school and college students over the past 20 years. Now, here’s some bad news. For females of the same age group, heavy drinking has increased. In fact, according to a recently published article in JSAD, or the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, perhaps for the first time ever, male and female students are engaging in heavy episodic drinking (HED) on an equal scale.

The JSAD article is actually an abstract of a study performed by researchers at Loyola Marymount University in order to determine if HED causes osteoporosis in adolescent females. In other words, they wanted to find out if heavy drinking causes bone problems in young women. For older people, (and for animals), HED has been shown to cause osteoporosis. However, up until now, no study was ever performed to determine if HED does so for adolescent females.women drinking causes osteoperosis

The main objective of the study was to determine causation for osteoporosis, but not just from heavy alcohol use. Along with HED, (which we will define in more detail later on), participants of the study (87 people, all female and between 18 and 20 years old), were asked about many things:

  • Age at first menstrual cycle
  • Any hormonal contraceptive use
  • Smoking habits
  • Overall physical activity level

After completing this survey, each participant was given a “dual energy x-ray absorptiometry bone scan to assess both lean body mass and BMD at the lumbar spine,” according to the study. BMD stands for bone mass density. It essentially measures how strong and dense your bones are. This study measured the lumbar spine region, which is located in the middle of your lower back. Humans have either five or six bones (vertebrae) in this region, and they are quite important bones.

According to the Laser Spine Institute, “Lumbar vertebrae are responsible for bearing the load of the torso and are the largest bones in the vertebral column. Their function is to protect the lower spinal cord and nerve roots and serve as an attachment point for spinal ligaments, tendons and spinal muscles.” Seems important, right? Strong BMD in the lumbar region is crucial to a healthy life. That is why our study at hand is also so important.

Due to discovering new information regarding causes of osteoporosis and adolescent females, the majority of the rest of this article focuses on heavy episodic drinking within this age group.

HED Defined

Within the parameters of the article, HED is defined as “having four or more drinks within 2 hours on 115 or more occasions since the start of high school, which is approximately equal to 1.6 episodes per month over this period.

To define heavy drinking in general, for anyone of any age, we should turn to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The NIAAA is the premier authority on such topics in America. They define heavy drinking as such: “For women, low-risk drinking is defined as no more than 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. For men, it is defined as no more than 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week.”

Results of the Study

According to the results section of the article, Heavy episodic and drinking I’m on adolescent females can cause decreased bone mass density. The most shocking thing discovered was that bone mass density can be decreased in a young woman who engages in heavy drinking even if she has normal menstrual cycles, doesn’t use hormonal contraceptives, doesn’t smoke and is in shape.

That’s the most shocking thing, but the strangest thing is that females engaging in heavy episodic drinking under the age of 15 were proven to NOT show any decrease in bone mass density.

Why this Matters

There are two main reasons this study should be of interest to all women who drink at any level. One is that nowadays men and women are basically drinking at the same rate, which means more women are drinking than ever. The vast majority of drinkers begin in adolescence. Put this all together and it means that more women than ever are exposing themselves to the possibility of osteoporosis.

The second reason is more concerning.

In the words of the study, “This gender equity in heavy drinking is concerning because of sex differences in anatomy and physiology that cause women to absorb a greater volume of alcohol and to metabolize it more slowly relative to men.” Put more simply, female bodies don’t tolerate alcohol as well as men’s bodies do.

Now, put both of these reasons together and what do you have? The female gender is today more at risk than ever for all alcohol-related diseases, accidents, symptoms, and other negative occurrences. Examples include but are not limited to blackouts, alcohol overdoses, car accidents, alcohol-related injuries, unwanted pregnancies, sexual assaults, physical altercations, poor academic performance, poor performance at work, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

This study in particular happened to touch upon the gender equity regarding heavy drinking. However, the fact remains that very little research has been done in the way of studying adolescent women who drink. This study focused on bone mass density, and so we will delve a little deeper into that aspect.

BMD in Teen Female Drinkers

The main real world consequence of being diagnosed with osteoporosis is the increased risk of bone fracture. In an arm-impact accident where someone without osteoporosis would perhaps be heavily bruised, someone with osteoporosis would very likely break his or her arm. Now hear this. Osteoporosis is four times more common among women than men. In fact, on a global scale, according to the study, one in three women over the age of 50 will be diagnosed with some sort of osteoporosis.

Among women over 65 with osteoporosis, bone fracture is a leading cause of death.

Perhaps now it is easy to see the importance of this study and the importance of more studies to be done. Part of the high school and college education process regarding alcohol should absolutely involve these facts. There are several ways to prevent osteoporosis from happening, and it turns out that avoiding heavy drinking is one of them. Believe it or not, it turns out there is even deeper reason for all women to know what heavy drinking in their teenage and adolescent years can do long term.

Everybody will reach a point in life where they hit a peak of bone mass density. A fleeting moment, bone density only gets worse from there. For women, it is between the ages of 20 and 25 that bone mass density reaches its maximum level. Therefore, it is extremely important for teenage and adolescent females to take care of their bones because their bone strength at that time in their lives will determine their bone strength later on.

Lifestyle choices during adolescence are thought to influence approximately 30% of the outcome of bone mass density later in life.

How Young Girls can Prevent Low BMD

First and foremost, it is our duty to inform you that if you want a complete list of ways to prevent low bone mass density, you should contact your doctor. That being said, some of the ways not just young females but all people can avoid low bone mass density are:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight; this includes regular exercise and a balanced diet
  • Regular engagement in movement, (avoiding lethargy)
  • A healthy intake of both vitamin D and calcium

Some behaviors linked with lowering bone mass density include but are not limited to:

  • Early and/or prolonged use of oral contraceptives
  • Early and/or prolonged use of either alcohol or tobacco
  • The “depot” injection form of contraceptive

It’s a cliché, but it’s one that is everlasting and forever accurate: Exercise and a healthy diet prevent virtually every single health-related disease. This includes osteoporosis. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more than a trendy thing to do. It prolongs your life. Parents of young girls, uncles and aunts to young girls, and young girls yourselves, please listen! Start now! Make it part of your everyday life to be healthy, and your everyday life will have more days in it. Plus, you’ll have stronger bones J.

Facts and Figures

To further emphasize the importance of maintaining healthy bones, let’s take a look at some facts and figures, provided by the International Osteoporosis Foundation.

  • On a global scale, osteoporosis causes around 9 million bone fractures per year. That’s one for every three seconds that go by.
  • Around 200 million women are afflicted with osteoporosis worldwide, and around 120 million men are afflicted as well.
  • Overall, 80% of all forearm fractures occur in women. So do 75% of humerus fractures, 70% of hip fractures, and 58% of spine fractures.
  • Just a 10% loss of bone density in vertebrae causes double the risk for vertebral fracture

 “Osteoporosis takes a huge personal and economic toll. In Europe, the disability due to osteoporosis is greater than that caused by cancers (with the exception of lung cancer) and is comparable or greater than that lost to a variety of chronic non-communicable diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and high blood pressure related heart disease.”

In Conclusion

It’s easy to forget bone health when considering overall human wellness. Everyone thinks about body shape and all that comes with it. Likely very few of us think often about strengthening our bones. However, as we have seen, bone health is extremely important. Honing back in on the true topic at hand, we’ve also learned how heavy drinking among adolescent females is a precursor for osteoporosis.

The real message that yours truly is attempting to convey in writing this article is to do everything you can, whoever you are, to stop and prevent underage drinking. Yes, the study we looked at focused on females, and was mainly about bone health, but it brings to light the real issue, which is the fact that adolescents are drinking at all, male or female.

Drinking causes around 88,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. Approximately 4,300 of those annual fatalities are people under the legal drinking age. While that is not a large percentage of the overall death toll, it’s still more than eleven young Americans dying every single day from alcohol they should not even have access to.

The bottom line is that America needs to step its game up when it comes to fighting the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse we’re currently facing. This is not to say a lot isn’t being done, because it is, but obviously it’s not enough. More underage females are drinking than ever. Obviously we’re doing something wrong, or not doing enough.

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