arm fat

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STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Forget palm readers; your arms may reveal a lot more about your future. A new study reports that measuring the total arm fat of a person over 50 could reveal osteoporosis and predict who is at risk for spinal fractures. The findings could be a new, less costly way of identifying individuals who might suffer devastating injuries in a fall.

Osteoporosis causes brittle bones, which increases the risk of falls and bone fractures. It is common among older adults, but it remains one of the most underdiagnosed and untreated medical conditions in the world. Many people do not notice symptoms of brittle bones until they actually suffer a fracture, most notably in the spine.

Imaging techniques such as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry can measure bone mineral density. A trabecular bone score measures bone quality and predicts new fractures due to other factors independent of bone mineral density. However, how body fat affects bone health has been unclear until now.

Researchers from Greece enrolled 14 men and 101 women with an average age of 62 who did not have a history of osteoporosis. They found those with excess body fat, regardless of their body mass index, had low bone quality in their spine. Lower bone quality in the trabecular bone of the spine (also known as the spongy bone) was associated with more belly fat inside the abdomen and around internal organs. When taking a closer look at the distribution of fat under the skin, the individuals with higher fat mass in their arms were more likely to have lower bone quality and strength in the spine.

scan of osteoporotic bone
Low-power scanning electron microscope image showing osteoporotic architecture in the fourth lumbar vertebra of an 89-year-old woman (x20). The bone is heavily eroded in places by the action of osteoclasts and consists mainly of thin, fragile struts (Credit: Bone Research Society by kind permission of Alan Boyde/University of Bristol)

“Surprisingly, we identified, for the first time, that the body composition of the arms—in particular, the fat mass of the arms—is negatively associated with the bone quality and strength of the vertebrae,” says Eva Kassi, an endocrinologist and professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece who served as senior author of the study, in a media release. “This could mean that the arm’s subcutaneous fat, which can be easily estimated even by the simple and inexpensive skin-fold calliper method, may emerge as a useful index of bone quality of the spine, possibly predicting the vertebrae fracture risk.”

Kassi notes that visceral fat — a form of fat that surrounds the organs and is difficult to get rid of — was strongly correlated with low bone quality. Visceral fat contains molecules called adipocytokines that create low-grade inflammation. The increased inflammation negatively impacts bone quality and strength in the spine.

Larger studies will need to verify this new link between arm fat and spinal fracture risk further. The team’s future studies will involve increasing the enrollment size and including younger adults between the ages of 30 and 50, along with more men. Using arm fat mass loss as a marker, the authors also plan to identify the best physical exercise routine that targets visceral fat and the upper part of the body in older and high-risk adults.

The study authors presented their findings at the 26th European Congress of Endocrinology in Stockholm.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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