BACKGROUND: Bone mineral density has been reduced in patients with asthma taking inhaled corticosteroids in some cross sectional studies and this could be important if treatment is continued for several decades. The possibility of confounding by age, menopausal status, physical activity and, especially, past oral steroid use has not been excluded in most studies. The present study was designed to assess the magnitude of any reduction in bone mineral density in relation to inhaled steroid use after adjusting for these factors. METHODS: Bone mineral density (BMD), vertebral fractures, and markers of bone metabolism (serum osteocalcin, procollagen peptide I, bone-specific alkaline phosphatase, and urinary deoxypyridinoline cross links) were measured in 81 patients with asthma age 20-40 years; 34 patients (19 men) who had never had inhaled or systemic steroids and 47 (19 men) who had taken inhaled steroids for at least five years with limited exposure to systemic steroids in the past. Data relating to past medication use, physical activity, smoking, and other confounding factors were collected by questionnaire. The relation between inhaled steroid dose and duration and BMD was assessed by linear regression analysis, accounting for potential confounders including weight, exercise, and oral steroid use. RESULTS: The 47 patients taking an inhaled steroid had a mean current dose of 620 micrograms/day (range 100-3000 micrograms), a mean duration of use of 7.8 years, and had had a mean of 0.85 courses of prednisolone in the past. There was no significant difference in mean BMD values between those who were and those who were not on inhaled steroids in men or women. However, on multivariate analysis, cumulative inhaled steroid dose was associated with a reduction in posterior-anterior (P-A) and lateral lumbar spine bone mineral density in women, equivalent to a 0.11 standard deviation reduction in bone density per 1000 micrograms/day inhaled steroid per year after adjustment for potential confounding factors (95% CI for P-A spine 0.01 to 0.22; for lateral spine 0.02 to 0.21). Previous oral steroid use was not an important confounding factor in these patients. Inhaled steroid use was not related to BMD at the wrist or hip in women or at any skeletal site in men. Women taking an inhaled steroid had lower levels of serum osteocalcin than those not taking them, although this was not dose related. Inhaled steroid use was not associated with differences in other markers of bone metabolism in men or women or with the presence of vertebral fractures. CONCLUSIONS: Although an effect of confounding factors cannot be excluded entirely in a cross sectional study, our findings are in keeping with an effect of inhaled steroid therapy in reducing bone density in the spine in women and provide an estimate of the magnitude of this effect.
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