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Did you know DNA can affect your bone health?

Brittle Bones: Bone health, genetics and the battle against osteoporosis

They say beauty is only skin deep. This statement would be true if perfect skin was all one needed to become an actress, a supermodel or to be called “beautiful”. Features that grant beauty, like perfect jawlines, high cheekbones and flawless teeth, are shaped not by the skin, but by what lies underneath – the bones. Tyra and Angelina, and their super-star cheekbones, can attest to the fact that behind true beauty, there is perfect bone structure.

As anchors, bones not only define the shape of the face, they also provide the rest of the body with structure, act as reservoirs for minerals like calcium, and protect vital organs. Since bone is a living tissue, broken bones heal, and braces can perfect our smiles. Old bones are removed and new bones are produced continuously throughout our lives. Aging makes this process much less efficient, leading to osteoporosis.

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Osteoporosis is known as the “silent thief”, because people don’t experience any initial symptoms, as their bones become less dense, more porous and prone to breaking. Many factors contribute to bone health, including gender, diet, physical activity and genetics. Understanding your genetics can help predict your risk of osteoporosis early in life, providing an opportunity for early intervention and prevention. Common variations in five genes – CYP2R1, GC, GDF5, WNT16 and COL1A1 – have been shown to affect the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Strong bones require calcium. The amount of calcium absorbed from our diet is controlled by vitamin D. Not surprisingly, two of the genes influencing the risk of osteoporosis, CYP2R1 and GC, are involved in vitamin D intake. The CYP2R1 gene encodes an enzyme responsible for converting vitamin D to an active form that can be used by the body. The GC gene gives instructions to make a vitamin D binding protein, required for the absorption and the transport of vitamin D. Several genetic variants of CYP2R1 and GC affect vitamin D levels. And when there is low vitamin D, there is poor calcium absorption and utilization.

GDF5 and WNT16 encode proteins in two pathways that control bone development and repair. If you inherit a version of these genes with reduced function, you are more prone to osteoporosis. The COL1A1 gene encodes a component of collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in our body. It supports our bones, cartilage, tendons and even skin. One variant of this gene is linked to lower bone density and increased risk for osteoporosis.

Osteoporotic fractures affect at least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over their lifetime. Hip fractures caused by osteoporosis lead to more hospitalizations than stroke, diabetes or heart attack. Once treated for the initial fracture, less than half of the patients are able to return home; the rest need further treatment, rehabilitation or long-term care. A high-calcium diet, increased vitamin D intake and physical activity can do wonders for maintaining strong bones. But these preventative measure are much more effective if implemented early on. Peak bone mass (our maximum bone size and strength) is reached by 30 years of age. This means to get the maximum impact of preventative strategies, they are best implemented in children and young adults.

These are the facts; thus the question remains, are you willing to let sticks and stones break your bones, or will you make informed lifestyle choices based on your genes to keep your bones strong and healthy?

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