The nation's doctors and scientists are hoping that a plant hormone called isoflavone found in soybeans could help treat brittle bones in menopausal women.
The National Health Research Institute (NHRI) yesterday announced a two-year-long plan to investigate the effects of natural isoflavone, a popular food ingredient in various health foods to fend against osteoporosis.
"It is widely thought that regularly eating soy-rich foods improves women's health. Yet no comprehensive scientific research on isoflavone has been conducted," said Tai Tong-yuan (戴東原), director of the NHRI's division of gerontology research.
"This is why research needs to be done before consumers are advised to eat a certain kind of health food," Tai added.
Taiwan's highest health research institution will work with three other medical centers -- National Taiwan University Hospital, National Cheng Kung University Hospital, and Chunghwa Christian Hospital -- to recruit 420 subjects for clinical trials in Taipei, Tainan and Chunghwa.
"In the trials, we will closely monitor whether isoflavone helps restore levels of estrogen in women who have stopped producing it, or balance it in women who have abnormally high levels of the hormone," Tai said.
Osteoporosis is common in Taiwan, official figures show. Every year, bone fractures affect one in three women and one in five men, according to Bureau of National Health Insurance statistics. Annually, the bone disease is responsible for 3,500 hip fractures in women above the age of 65 and 2,500 hip fractures in men above the age of 65.
Doctors often caution the elderly, especially menopausal women, not to underestimate the threat imposed by osteoporosis.
"Women are particularly at risk because they have smaller and more fragile bones. This is complicated by menopause, during which the body stops producing estrogen -- a hormone essential for good bone health. And because of the natural ageing process, the risk increases with age," said Tu Shih Te (杜思德), chief of internal medicine at Chunghwa Christian Hospital, who is also involved in the research project.
About 15 percent of women above the age of 65 die within a year after experiencing a bone fracture. The figure rises to 22 percent in men, bureau statistics indicated.
"Osteoporosis is a silent illness, because many people do not know they have it until it is too late," Dai said. "Yet we think that soy containing isoflavone that can inhibit bone degeneration and helps sustain mineral density. While we expect isoflavone to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, we will also study its side effects," he added.