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Boning Up on Bones

Camp Calcium

Not For Women Only continued...

As Weaver puts it: "You get more bang for your buck if you build a strong skeleton when you are young."

Camp Calcium is now in its seventh year, though this past summer was the first time the camp was run for boys. Funded in part by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMSD), the camp has sought to answer these fundamental questions: How does the body use calcium to build strong bones? And how much calcium should young people have in their diet?

At this year's camp, researchers sought to determine the level of calcium intake that would result in the optimum amount being retained by the boys' bones. The boys were fed controlled diets that included from 1,800-2,200 milligrams of calcium (approximately six or seven glasses of milk) a day.

By analyzing the urine and feces collections, researchers will be able to determine how much calcium is being excreted -- as opposed to absorbed by bones -- at varying levels of dietary intake. Results from the research will be published early next year.

"We want to see how absorption and retention of calcium reacts to changes in intake," Martin explains. "Is there a point of diminishing returns at which drinking more milk is not going to do any good?"

Serious Goals

For kids like David Martin, Camp Calcium is a fun and unusual way to spend a summer. But the findings from research at the camp will likely affect their lives, and their bones, decades from now.

On the basis of results from Camp Calcium's earlier research with girls, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine revised its recommendations for the amount of calcium girls should consume from 1,200 milligrams a day to 1,300 milligrams (approximately four to five glasses of milk).

"We have a serious goal of trying to understand the metabolism of calcium during the adolescent growth spurt," says Joan McGowan, PhD, chief of the musculoskeletal disease branch at NIAMSD. "Osteoporosis is not going to be a factor in these kids' lives for half a century, but among those who do get it, probably 50% will have had inadequate bone acquisition in adolescence."

McGowan says that when it comes to building bones, it's adolescence or never. "It's not possible to really build the skeleton after adolescence, so it's critical to put as much bone in the bank as you can," she says.

She calls the camp an innovative way to attract kids to participate in a research project -- always a challenge when the more typical setting is a hospital or clinic with white-coated researchers. And previous camps for girls have had the added benefit of introducing young women to science and to women scientists, she says.

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