The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)—recently awarded a Loyola Marymount University research project $374,000 to investigate a possible link between decreased bone health and heavy, intermittent alcohol use in college-age adults.
The study represents a unique collaboration between faculty at the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering and Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, with Health and Human Sciences Associate Professor Hawley Almstedt, Ph.D., R.D.N. and Psychology Professor Joseph LaBrie, Ph.D., jointly serving as primary investigators on the grant.
“It’s a great collaborative effort,” LaBrie said. “We both have expertise in certain areas: Dr. Almstedt’s is in nutrition and health, and mine is in addiction and psychosocial behaviors in emerging adults. Merging these together creates something very novel and allows us to look at a completely new question that hasn’t been looked at before. This [grant] is a huge gain for us, and we really think we’re onto something interesting.”
Almstedt’s preliminary research on bone heath has shown a subset of young adults whose bone mineral density inexplicably decreases at an age when it should be increasing. “The question just kept coming up again and again: ‘What could be causing bone loss in this really young, healthy group?’” Almstedt explained. “When we went back to look at the data we could not find an answer. We couldn’t answer it by poor diet; we couldn’t answer it by exercise patterns. We hypothesized that perhaps it was due to drinking behaviors that sometimes begin in college.”
That’s when Almstedt reached out to LaBrie, director of the HeadsUP Alcohol Prevention & Intervention Lab at LMU and a prominent researcher on adolescent and emerging adult development.
“It certainly builds on all of my work with college students, drinking and risk behaviors,” LaBrie said. “We have the ability to show, for the first time, that heavy drinking in young people negatively affects bone growth and health. We think we will find that the heaviest drinkers will not grow bone density at the same rate—or may even lose bone density—when compared to light or nondrinkers,” said LaBrie. “It would be groundbreaking, because nobody yet has shown that there is any relationship between alcohol use and reaching peak bone mass.”
Almstedt says that she hopes that the collaboration will not only advance existing science on bone health, but that it will also serve to broaden the student experience at LMU. “Modern education is really pushing interdisciplinary work,” Almstedt said. “Our students need to be able to integrate knowledge across the disciplines, and I feel like this research is a primary example of that.”
The yearlong study will begin data collection in February, with additional collaboration from Health and Human Sciences professor Heather Tarleton. LMU students will also assist in data collection, data analysis and presentation of research.