The Bayonet

Thursday, Jan. 09, 2014

Army conducting joint study to improve military bone health

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NATICK, Mass. — Researchers from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine have teamed up with the Trainee Health Surveillance Flight 559th Medical Group’s Basic Military Training Team at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, to determine whether increased vitamin D and calcium intake can improve bone health in military personnel.

Stress fractures and musculoskeletal injuries are among the leading causes of medical holdovers during basic military training, and often lead to attrition of military personnel early in their careers. As many as five percent of males and 20 percent of females may develop some sort of stress fracture during military training due to the novice warriors’ inability to withstand unaccustomed, repeated stress to their bodies, such as marching with body armor.

“Optimizing bone health of military personnel is essential, especially during Basic Military Training and other military training activities,” explained Dr. James McClung, a nutritional biochemist with USARIEM’s Military Nutrition Division. “These injuries are costly to warfighters and to the military, as a significant portion of individuals that suffer from stress fracture leave military service and stress fracture results in substantial health care costs associated with treatment and rehabilitation.”

Recent studies have linked vitamin D and calcium to bone health and the prevention of stress fractures. In a 2008 study conducted by Creighton University, in conjunction with the Navy, more than 5,000 female recruits underwent a trial in which they consumed either a supplement containing vitamin D and calcium or a placebo over the eight weeks of Navy boot camp.

During the course of that study, 270 stress fractures were observed in the placebo group, but only 226 stress fractures were observed in the group receiving the vitamin D and calcium supplement. Advanced analysis showed that vitamin D and calcium supplementation may have reduced the risk of stress fracture by up to 20 percent.

“We say ‘may have reduced the risk’ because missing from that study were biochemical indicators of nutritional health or functional indicators of bone health,” McClung said. “There were just not enough data to use this study as the sole basis for implementing policy changes affecting vitamin D and calcium levels in the warfighter diet.”

So, McClung and his team of researchers, managed by Dr. Erin Gaffney-Stomberg, a research fellow within the division, set out to explore the biochemical and functional basis for these findings, with the goal of providing Army and Air Force personnel with levels of vitamin D and calcium consistent with the Navy study. After conducting an initial study with the Army in 2012, McClung partnered with the team at JBSA-Lackland in October 2013, for more research.

Air Force recruits, both male and female, participated in a trial similar to the Navy study, but this time they were given a snack bar either fortified with vitamin D and calcium that was developed in collaboration with scientists from the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, in Natick, Mass., or a placebo snack bar.

McClung’s team of researchers collected physiological data from Airmen twice during their training, on day three of their reception phase of training and again immediately prior to graduation. military training while they wait to heal in medical hold and then exercise to regain fitness to meet military physical training standards required to graduate.

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