A lack of positive connections with others may do more than make older women lonely, with new research suggesting it can also weaken their bones.
In a long-term study of more than 11,000 postmenopausal women in the United States, lower bone mineral density was associated with higher “social strain,” a measure of negative social interactions and relationships.
Weaker bones were also tied to lower levels of social activity.
Higher social strain was associated with greater bone mineral loss of the total hip, lumbar spine (lower back) and femoral neck (just below the ball of the ball-and-socket hip joint).
The women’s social strain scores ranged from 4 to 20, with higher scores indicating more strain.
Each point higher was associated with 0.08% greater loss of femoral neck bone mineral density, 0.11% greater loss of total hip bone mineral density and 0.07% greater loss of lumbar spine bone mineral density.
Lower social activity was associated with greater bone loss at the total hip and femoral neck, according to the study published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The associations between bone mineral density and social strain and social activity were found after the researchers adjusted for age, education, existing health conditions, weight, smoking status, alcohol use, hormone therapy use, age at menopause, physical activity and history of fracture after age 55.
Because this was an observational study, it can’t prove that poor social connections actually cause bone mineral density loss, the authors noted.
However, the findings show that “bone loss is among the physiological stress responses more strongly related to the quality of social relationships than quantity,” according to Shawna Follis, from the University of Arizona’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, and colleagues.
The researchers also pointed to prior studies, which have suggested that factors such as major stressful events and lower levels of optimism, life satisfaction and education, may be associated with fractures.
Based on the findings, community-based efforts to help older women have healthy, active social lives might end up helping their bone health, too, the study authors said.