4 July 2002
Elderly women can significantly reduce their risk of broken bones if they eat a better diet, according to new research.
A study funded by leading medical charity Action Research found that in elderly underweight women with osteoporosis, improvement in their nutritional intake prevented bone loss. It also increased their wellbeing.
The London-based researchers say that this in turn is likely to reduce their chances of painful and disabling hip fractures – of which there are as many as 60,000 in the UK each year.
The results from the two and a half year study could have immediate impact in primary care, and the researchers are hoping to share the data with as many GPs as possible.
Lead researcher Dr Geeta Hampson, of the Department of Chemical Pathology at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, says: ‘Malnutrition is common in the frail elderly population and is associated with osteoporosis and fractures. Hip fractures in particular are a major cause of pain, disability and death in the elderly.
‘The aim of this study was to investigate the beneficial effects that dietary advice and better nutrition might have on bone health, and we were very pleased with the results.’
Action Research, which incidentally helped pioneer the UK’s most successful artificial hip replacement, pumped more than £75,000 into the study.
Seventy-one underweight women aged over 70 diagnosed with osteoporosis at the hip were recruited to the Action Research study and divided into two groups. Group 1 (the control group) received calcium and vitamin D supplements only, and group 2 received, in addition, dietary advice and nutritional supplements in order to increase their weight.
For a whole year group 1 did not alter their diets, whereas group 2 did. They were seen at regular intervals by a dietician who helped them increase their protein and calorie intake (on average 10-15g of protein and 500 extra calories a day). This was achieved by giving them one or two cartons of a nutritional supplement drink daily, which they took in addition to their diet.
The researchers found that women in group 2 gained weight (about 2.5kg over the year), and increased their fat and lean mass, and their whole body mineral content. More importantly in this group, there was a significant reduction in bone loss and a positive trend towards an increase in bone density at the hip. Additionally, more women in this group reported an increase in their wellbeing at the end of the study.
Joan Haley was only diagnosed with osteoporosis once she participated in the Action Research study and was given a scan.
The 79-year-old from Manor Park, near Essex says: ‘I was quite surprised as I’d always been quite an active person. But I’m relieved I was diagnosed before it was too late. Otherwise I might not have been aware of the osteoporosis until I’d fallen and suffered from a broken bone.
‘I don’t feel quite as vulnerable now because I know I can try and do things to help the condition such as eating foods rich in calcium.’
Joan agreed to take part in the Action Research study when her local GP said doctors in the London area were looking for underweight patients who were willing to take part in the research programme.
The retired shop worker enrolled at St Thomas’ Hospital, and with the help of a dietician altered her diet to include more foods such as chicken and fish, and drank a nutritional drink at least once a day.
‘I put on about a stone in weight’, she says proudly, ‘And I felt much better and fitter.’
Dr Hampson, a senior lecturer in Chemical Pathology, worked in conjunction with colleagues in the Departments of Elderly Care, also at St Thomas’s Hospital, and the Osteoporosis Screening Unit at Guy’s Hospital. The researchers say the results suggest that improvements in nutritional status in elderly women may reduce osteoporotic fracture risk, and they are hoping to publish and present their work.
Dr Hampson says: ‘Now that our findings are positive, we would anticipate applying this in primary care.’ She also says that the results might open up further research for children and bone health, as it’s important they too have a good diet to optimise their peak bone mass.
Another study currently being funded by Action Research, based in Manchester, is looking at whether children who follow both a healthy diet and take plenty of exercise have a much lower risk of developing osteoporosis in later life.
Action Research, which is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, is committed to helping people of all ages overcome disease and disability. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2.5m in 2002 for vital medical research.
Help us reach our target by visiting www.action.org.uk
*Osteoporosis is a condition which causes bones to become weak and brittle.
*It affects one in three women and one in 12 men.
*It costs the NHS an estimated £900 million each year.
*It causes the bones to become porous and fragile, and therefore at risk of fractures. A hip fracture almost always requires hospitalisation and major surgery.