A recent study found an association between heavy drinking by adolescent females and poorer bone mass later on.
Failure to reach peak bone mass (PBM) in early adulthood may lead to osteoporosis, a bone disease characterized by low bone mineral density (BMD) that primarily affects postmenopausal women. Heavy episodic drinking (HED) has been found in previous research to predict failure to reach PBM; however, this relationship has not yet been investigated in adolescent human females.
In a recent study, 87 female college students completed an online survey and reported their age at menarche, hormonal contraceptive use, physical activity, smoking habits, and HED history. The students then received a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry bone scan to assess lean body mass and BMD at the lumbar spine.
“Only recently have researchers begun to investigate how frequent HED during adolescence and young adulthood may more subtly affect young women, impairing health and functioning much later in life,” stated the researchers. “This exploratory study investigates a novel, heretofore unexamined distal consequence potentially associated with frequent HED among young females: impaired skeletal health and increased osteoporosis risk.”
The results of the online survey responses showed that frequent HED—having 4 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 during this period—was associated with decreased vertebral BMD. The researchers came to this conclusion for this association even when they controlled the variables most commonly associated with bone health (lean body mass, physical activity, age at menarche, smoking, and oral contraception use).
However, the study also found that early HED initiation, meaning HED began at age 15 or younger, was not significantly related to BMD. These results suggest that frequency of engaging in HED may have more of an effect on skeletal health during the young adult years of bone accrual than age of HED initiation.
“Although more research is needed, initial evidence for the association between frequent HED and reduced BMD in young women carries important implications for interventionists working to decrease osteoporosis as well as those tasked with reducing underage drinking and mitigating alcohol-related risks among young adults,” the study said. “As this study’s findings suggest that high rates of osteoporosis among women might be reduced by decreasing HED during their developmental years, the findings further encourage osteoporosis prevention efforts to focus on adolescence and young adulthood.”
The researchers emphasized the need for further research on the association between HED and BMD in late adolescence.
LaBrie JW, Boyle S, Earle A, Almstedt HC. Heavy episodic drinking is associated with poorer bone health in adolescent and young adult women. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2018 79:(3); 391-398. doi: 10.15288/jsad.2018.79.391