Bone loss goes undetected in millions of women, study says

Herald news services

CHICAGO — Almost 20 million American women, or nearly half of those past menopause, have thinning bones and don’t know it, one of the largest osteoporosis studies to date suggests.

The study was funded by Merck &Co., which makes an osteoporosis drug.

Using a relatively inexpensive imaging technique on 200,160 healthy women 50 and older, researchers found full-fledged osteoporosis in 7 percent and low bone density in an additional 40 percent.

The women were then followed for a year to see how many broke bones. The fracture rate in women with low bone density was nearly double that of women with normal bones, and four times higher in women with osteoporosis.

The study shows not only that bone-thinning is "grossly underdiagnosed" in postmenopausal women but that bone density can be used to predict the risk of fractures in as little as a year, said Dr. Ethel Siris, a Columbia University professor of clinical medicine who led the study.

The study is published in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

In other health news:

  • The drug most used to treat alcoholics in this country has no effect on long-term heavy drinkers, a Veterans Administration study found.

    The study looked at more than 600 veterans, almost all of them men. They were about 49 years old on average, had been getting drunk regularly since their early 20s, and when the study began were drinking about three days out of four, downing an average of 13 drinks on those days.

    One group took the drug naltrexone for three months, one took it for a year, and one took look-alike pills with no medical effect.

    In all three groups, the patients went an average of 4 1/2months without drinking. After 13 weeks and after a year, they were drinking less, and on far fewer days, than they had when the study began — but the reduction was about the same for all three groups.

    However, naltrexone might work for other patients, or with other drugs, said Dr. John Krystal, who led the study.

  • A newer estrogen-reducing drug appears to work better on certain breast cancers, with fewer side effects, than tamoxifen, a drug now taken by thousands of older women, according to a new study.

    Women who took the newer drug, called anastrozole, had a 17 percent lower rate of cancer relapse than women who took tamoxifen, now the standard treatment for post-menopausal women when the disease is diagnosed in its earliest stages. As a group, women who took anastrozole and tamoxifen together did not do as well as women who took anastrozole alone.

    The study, which began in 1996, involved 9,366 older women from 21 countries and was sponsored by London-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca PLC, which markets anastrozole under the brand name Arimidex.

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