You might want to bring your dumbbells on that next spaceflight.
During space missions lasting six months or longer, astronauts can experience bone loss equivalent to two decades of aging. A year of recovery in Earth’s gravity rebuilds about half of that lost bone strength, researchers report June 30 in Scientific Reports.
Bones “are a living organ,” says Leigh Gabel, an exercise scientist at the University of Calgary in Canada. “They’re alive and active, and they’re constantly remodeling.” But without gravity, bones lose strength.
Gabel and her colleagues tracked 17 astronauts, 14 men and three women with the average age of 47, who spent from four to seven months in space. The team used high-resolution peripheral quantitative computed tomography, or HR-pQCT, which can measure 3-D bone microarchitecture on scales of 61 microns, finer than the thickness of human hair, to image the bone structure of the tibia in the lower leg and the radius in the lower arm. The team took these images at four points in time — before spaceflight, when the astronauts returned from space, and then six months and one year later — and used them to calculate bone strength and density.
Astronauts in space for less than six months were able to regain their preflight bone strength after a year back in Earth’s gravity. But those in space longer had permanent bone loss in their shinbones, or tibias, equivalent to a decade of aging. Their lower-arm bones, or radii, showed almost no loss, likely because these aren’t weight-bearing bones, says Gabel.
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