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The brittleness of aging bones -- more than a loss of bone mass
Date:8/29/2011

It is a well-established fact that as we grow older, our bones become more brittle and prone to fracturing. It is also well established that loss of mass is a major reason for older bones fracturing more readily than younger bones, hence medical treatments have focused on slowing down this loss. However, new research from scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) shows that at microscopic dimensions, the age-related loss of bone quality can be every bit as important as the loss of quantity in the susceptibility of bone to fracturing.

Using a combination of x-ray and electron based analytical techniques as well as macroscopic fracture testing, the researchers showed that the advancement of age ushers in a degradation of the mechanical properties of human cortical bone over a range of different size scales. As a result, the bone's ability to resist fracture becomes increasingly compromised. This age-related loss of bone quality is independent of age-related bone mass loss.

"In characterizing age-related structural changes in human cortical bone at the micrometer and sub micrometer scales, we found that these changes degrade both the intrinsic and extrinsic toughness of bone," says Berkeley Lab materials scientist Robert Ritchie. "Based on multiscale structural and mechanical tests, we attribute this degradation to a hierarchical series of coupled mechanisms that start at the molecular level."

Ritchie, who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and the University of California (UC) Berkeley's Materials Science and Engineering Department, is the senior author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) that describes this work. The paper is titled "Age-related changes in the plasticity and toughness of human cortical bone at multiple length scales."

Co-authoring the PNAS paper with Ritchie were E
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Contact: Lynn Yarris
lcyarris@lbl.gov
510-486-5375
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert  

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