Researchers have developed a computer model that can calculate a person’s risk of premature death from fractures by assigning them a “skeletal age”.

The skeletal age calculator, developed from the Garvan Institute’s long-running Dubbo Osteoporosis Epidemiolgy study, incorporates an individual’s age, bone density, history of previous fractures and other health conditions.

Professor Professor Tuan Nguyen

Researcher Dr Thao Ho-Le, from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, says existing models can predict the risk of someone getting an initial fracture, but don’t explain why some people are more likely to have more fractures and a higher risk of mortality.

“We set out to develop a model to complement existing tools, which could simultaneously predict an individual’s risk of subsequent fractures and consequently, their chance of premature death,” he explains.

“In our new model, we quantified the intricate transitions between fracture, re-fracture and mortality. We define skeletal age as the age of an individual’s skeleton that results from their risk factors for fracture.

“Using this definition, we for instance estimated that a typical 70 year old man who had sustained a fracture had a skeletal age of 75 years.

“But when the man had a second fracture his skeletal age rose to 87 years. This means the individual now has the same fracture risk profile as an 87 year old man who has a healthy risk profile.”

Skeletal age versus actual age

Professor Tuan Nguyen, Head of the Genetic Epidemiology of Osteoporosis Lab at the Garvan Institute of Technology, says there is a lot of complacency about bone health in the community.

“We hope that calculating a person’s skeletal age, which may be much higher than their actual age, will identify those who are at higher risk of fractures and encourage them to speak to their doctor about how to better manage their condition.”

Professor Nguyen and Dr  Ho-Le have authored a research paper on the calculator which appears in eLife.

The team is presently developing an online calculator for doctors and health professionals.

Osteoporosis affects an estimated 900,000 Australians. 

From the age of 50, bone fractures affect one in two women and one in three men. For women, the lifetime risk of a hip fracture is equal to or higher than the risk of developing an invasive breast cancer.

With each fracture, the risk of future fracture increases two-fold and studies have shown that pre-existing fractures increase the risk of premature death by about 50 per cent in both men and women.

One in three adults over 50 dies within 12 months of suffering a hip fracture.

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