Floating in space might be fun, but study shows its hard on earthly bodies

Ever wondered if you have anything in common with an astronaut? Turns out there are 206 things — your bones. It’s these parts of our body that are the focus of a research study on bone loss in astronauts, and the important question of whether bone can be re-gained after returning to Earth.

The TBone study was started in 2015 by Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. The study has followed 17 astronauts before and after spaceflight over the last seven years to understand whether bone recovers after ‘long-duration’ spaceflight. Findings are published in Scientific Reports, and while it might not seem like it matters to you here on Earth, the research is important to better understand bone health generally.

“Bone loss happens in humans — as we age, get injured, or any scenario where we can’t move the body, we lose bone,” says Dr. Leigh Gabel, PhD, assistant professor in Kinesiology, and lead author of the study.

“Understanding what happens to astronauts and how they recover is incredibly rare. It lets us look at the processes happening in the body in such a short time frame. We would have to follow someone for decades on Earth to see the same amount of bone loss,” Gabel says.

The researchers travelled to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to scan the wrists and ankles of the astronauts before they left for space, on their return to Earth, and then at six- and 12-months.

“We found that weight-bearing bones only partially recovered in most astronauts one year after spaceflight,” she says. “This suggests the permanent bone loss due to spaceflight is about the same as a decade worth of age-related bone loss on Earth.”

This loss happens because bones that would normally be weight-bearing on Earth, like your legs, don’t have to carry weight in microgravity — you just float.

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