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High cholesterol can cause bone density loss, study shows

New research shows that high cholesterol is a direct contributor to bone density loss in the body.

Researchers at the Duke Medical Center found that placing mice on high cholesterol diets prevented the development of new bone cells and stimulated bone breakdown. The data collected from the study published Sept. 27 highlights the detrimental effects of high cholesterol and opens the door to new treatment and prevention methods for osteoporosis, such as the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, said Erik Nelson, a postdoctoral research associate involved in the study.

“Through this study, it is clear that statin drugs may not just have an effect on lowering cholesterol but also a direct hand in strengthening bone density,” Nelson said.

During the testing stage, researchers paid close attention to the breakdown product of cholesterol called 27-hydroxycholesterol—the primary agent responsible for bone density loss.

In the mice, a high-cholesterol diet caused a decrease in bone quality, though these effects only occurred after the original cholesterol was converted into 27-hydroxycholesterol—the compound that inhibits bone strength, Nelson said.

“The 27-hydroxycholesterol inhibits estrogen receptors and a second class of proteins called liver X receptors,” Nelson said. “The combined effect of estrogen and liver X receptors is what causes these harmful effects on bone health.”

According to the study, giving supplemental estrogen to the mice improved bone density despite their increased levels of 27-hydroxycholesterol. This demonstrates the beneficial effects of estrogen on bones as well as post-menopausal osteoporosis.

“The biggest risk factors of osteoporosis are age and sex,” Nelson said. “When women hit menopause, their bodies stop making estrogen. At that point, there is an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, especially if she has a history of high cholesterol.”

To some members of the Duke community, the results may come as a warning.

“Though I do not have to worry too much about osteoporosis at my current age, it is nice to know about possible risk factors ahead of time, so I can watch my diet in the future,” freshman Erin McInerney said.

Though the results do not pertain to men as strongly as to women, freshman Max Karakul said he still saw significance in the findings.

“I’ve heard again and again about cholesterol’s relationship with cardiovascular disease, but I never heard about its relationship with bone health,” Karakul said. “This is just another reason to avoid eating fast food.”

This recent study is just the beginning of a more rigorous research process to come, Nelson said. He is working to develop new drugs to improve bone health.

“This study suggests that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs can play a significant role in improving bone health,” Nelson said. “We are now getting involved with developing drugs that will help prevent diseases like osteoporosis.”

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