- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Nutritionists have found yet another reason why teenage girls should not become pregnant: Young mothers risk developing osteoporosis, a debilitating bone disease normally associated with older women.

In a study released last week by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers found that a third of mothers ages 13 to 18 in the study group showed signs of osteoporosis or osteopenia, a precursor condition.

Sufferers of osteoporosis develop porous, fragile bones primarily because of a lack of calcium in their diets. In the worst cases, bones become so delicate that they can snap during a handshake or even a sneeze.

The reason for the age link is straightforward. Teenagers are still growing; 40 percent of a girl’s skeletal mass is formed during those crucial years. Only 15 percent of teen girls — pregnant or not — get adequate calcium in their diets.

“Adolescents have a narrow window of opportunity to build bone mass, and the added demands of pregnancy mean that a mother and her fetus have to compete for calcium,” said Kimberly O’Brien, who directed the study at the Baltimore-based university.

Researchers conducted bone-density scans on the spines and bodies of 23 teen mothers during the last trimester of pregnancy, and after their babies arrived.

A total of 33 percent “met the definition of osteopenia or osteoporosis,” the study noted.

The results of the study were released in the December edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The researchers hope their findings present the “critical first step towards new recommendations to ensure that girls get adequate calcium” during their pregnancy.

More than 1 million teenage girls get pregnant each year and 500,000 give birth, the Hopkins study stated. But there is some good news here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual report on birth statistics for the nation released last week says the overall teen birthrate has declined by 30 percent over the past decade. For black teens from 15 to 17, the rate has been cut in half since 1991.

“The teen birthrate has dropped to a record low, and our records go back to 1940,” said Stephanie Ventura, a CDC demographer. “Teen sexual activity has leveled off.”

Meanwhile, the Hopkins research team also found that fetal bones are affected by a lack of calcium among teenage mothers. The group followed 350 pregnant girls younger than 17 for a decade, measuring the leg bone growth of their unborn babies through sonograms.

The babies’ bones significantly were shorter among those mothers who consumed less than two servings of dairy products daily, the researchers found.

“You have such a narrow window of opportunity to build skeleton,” research director Mrs. O’Brien said when the findings were released in May. “They are cutting into that for nine months.”

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