When it comes to reducing risk for osteoporosis, calcium, vitamin D and weight-bearing exercise are the standard recommendations—especially for menopausal women, whose bone health declines when their estrogen levels plummet.

Because osteoporosis also increases the odds of suffering a debilitating and sometimes deadly hip fracture, preventing significant bone loss can actually be a matter of life or death. Hip fracture is also a matter of urgent concern, as hip fractures are expected to increase by 50% in America by 2050, according to the World Health Organization.

Recent development: To help identify new ways of preventing osteoporosis-related hip fractures, researchers at São Paulo State University in Brazil conducted a laboratory study to investigate a novel approach—boosting levels of the so-called “love hormone” oxytocin.

Usually associated with social bonding, orgasm, childbirth and breast feeding, oxytocin has recently been found to also play a role in bone health. Noting that oxytocin levels tend to decline along with estrogen levels as women enter perimenopause, researchers theorized that boosting levels of the hormone may help curb the development of osteoporosis and prevent future hip fractures.

Study details: To test their theory, the researchers gave 18-month-old female rats (the age of periestropause—the equivalent of perimenopause in women) two doses of oxytocin or two doses of salt water (placebo) over 12 hours. The two groups were compared one month later by conducting blood tests and taking bone samples of femoral neck bone (the upper part of the thigh bone, where most hip fractures occur).

Results: The oxytocin-treated rats had higher levels of alkaline phosphatase—a protein that promotes bone formation—in their blood than the rats that had received the placebo. Unlike the control group, the rats that received oxytocin also had no evidence of osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis) and were found to have stronger and denser bones.

Takeaway: Oxytocin therapy is a promising strategy for preventing osteoporosis when given in the period just before menopause, according to the study, which was published in Scientific Reports. Based on these laboratory findings, the researchers now hope to move this inquiry into clinical trials in humans.

If oxytocin is found to help prevent osteoporosis, it could be a game changer, since it is a condition that many women cope with for up to one-third of their lives. The consequences are even more dire for those who suffer an osteoporosis-related hip fracture—less than half recover their previous level of mobility and 24% die within 12 months.

Source: The study titled “Oxytocin and Bone Quality in the Femoral Neck of Rats in Periestropause,” led by researchers at São Paulo State University, Brazil, and published in Scientific Reports.

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