During the month of October, a common decoration is the human skeleton. Halloween is a night when there is a blurring of the living and the dead. The growing season of life and light is fading into the cold and dark.

The skeleton is used by many cultures to represent either how short life is, the fear of death and the danger of death. Skulls were believed to be the “psychic seat” of the soul by the Druids and the Celts.

However, contrary to being representative of death and darkness, the skeleton is an amazing, living structure. We’re all aware that our bones keep us from collapsing and provide a structure to protect our interiors.

However, in addition to providing support they build blood cells, red and white cells, store chemicals, transmit sound in the middle ear and even make a hormone called osteocalcin. Osteocalcin was just discovered a couple of decades ago and is being studied to determine its functions but is felt to be a part of the metabolic processes regulating glucose, influencing moods, keeping memory in working order and even boosting male fertility.

Bones start growing when a baby is still inside its mother’s womb, but the skeleton is only partly complete at birth. From the top of the head to the tiniest toe, adults have about 206 bones and children have about 300 bone “parts.” These “parts” continue to grow and fuse until about 25 years. At first, they’re cartilaginous and can bend easily but grow stronger as they fuse and become calcified.

About 70 percent of a bone is inorganic material such as calcium and 30 percent organic. The most fundamental element of bone is collagen. There are different types of collagen, one that makes the white of your eye and the collagen of bone that combines with a mineral called hydroxyapatite to make bone and teeth.

Dr. Ben Ollivere at the University of Nottingham said bone is stronger than reinforced concrete yet light enough to let us sprint. We think of bones as being inert building material, but they’re living tissue and grow stronger with exercise. The bone in a professional tennis player’s serving arm may be 30 percent thicker than in the other arm.

It’s important for children to build strong bones both with good diets and plenty of exercise. Good diets include calcium (milk, not juice). As humans approache middle age they begin to lose bone mass at about 1 percent a year. So, the stronger the child’s bone, the longer it will remain strong.

Our skeletons are amazing living things. So, when you celebrate Halloween with candy, don’t forget to drink a big glass of milk.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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