Brittle bones are a known consequence of alcoholism, and now new findings suggest that even young men are at risk of developing low bone mass. Surprisingly, a similar risk was not seen in their female counterparts.

In a study of 57 alcoholic adults between the ages of 27 and 50, researchers found that one quarter of the men had lower than normal bone mass. Just 1 of the 20 women the researchers examined had a deficit in bone mass.

The latter finding, the researchers speculate, might be explained by the women's relatively high estrogen levels that, for the time being, may have protected their bone mass.

In contrast, men had no such hormonal protection and, like their female counterparts, showed high deficiency rates of vitamin D, which is important in maintaining bone mass.

The findings suggest that even young alcoholic patients should have their bone mass and bone metabolism screened, the researchers report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"The fact that even relatively healthy young male alcoholics — without any kind of liver disease — show low bone mineral density is an important finding," lead researcher Dr. Peter Malik, of the Medical University Innsbruck, told Reuters Health.

It's thought that alcoholism leads to bone thinning, in part, because of toxic effects on the body's bone-forming cells. However, indirect effects may be at work as well; alcoholics often have poor diets and little exercise, both of which can drain bone density.

Malik pointed out that in this study, bone density was not related to the duration of patients' alcohol dependency or to the amount of alcohol they had consumed before going into treatment.

This finding suggests that alcoholic patients' lifestyle habits may indeed contribute to waning bone density.

It's not clear whether bone density improves if the alcoholics are able to stop drinking, Malik said, as few studies have followed young recovering alcoholics' bone health over time. He and his colleagues now plan to study that question.