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Hibernating Bears Help Humans

BLACKSBURG, Va. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Just like bears, many people hunker down and stay inside during cold winter months. But unlike bears, humans would suffer serious health issues sleeping through the cold season. What's a hibernating bear's secret to staying healthy and what does it mean for humans?

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Eighty-one-year-old Frances Marshall keeps herself active, but like millions of people, she has a bone disease.

"I was told about 2 years ago that I had osteoporosis and that my bones were susceptible to fractures," Marshall told Ivanhoe.

Osteoporosis makes bones fragile and leads to bone loss and is usually caused by lack of physical activity. There is no cure. Now, population ecologists say sleeping bears could hold the key to preventing the disease.

"One unique thing about bears is that when they go into a hibernating mode, they don't experience bone loss that a human would," Mike Vaughan, Ph.D., a population ecologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., explained.

Some bears hibernate for almost half a year but show no signs of osteoporosis. People who are inactive that long almost always have bone loss. So what's the bear's secret?

"They're continuing bone growth and we don't know how they do that," Dr. Vaughan said.

To learn more about bear's bones, researchers measured their growth hormones. They learned that bone loss does increase during hibernation, but bone production occurs at the same time. The two processes are balanced out so that little to no bone loss occurs.

"If we can determine how the bears maintain this balance, it might be able to be applied to humans who are in bed rest and avoid this osteoporosis problem," Dr. Vaughan said.

Researchers still have a lot to learn about bear bones but are hopeful it will lead to new therapies for osteoporosis. Instead of curling up on the couch, Marshall's quick pace helps keep her disease in check.

"I don't think osteoporosis has slowed me down one little bit," she said.

She's staying one step ahead of osteoporosis.

Researchers also think they can learn more about human cholesterol buildup from bears. Bears store a large amount of fat in the fall to sustain them through hibernation, yet they don't experience cholesterol buildup like humans.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Mike Vaughan, PhD
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, VA
(540) 231-5046

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