It’s a fact of life: Regardless of gender, ethnicity, lifestyle or diet, we all lose bone mass and density as we age. Women are especially vulnerable after menopause, but everyone’s bones change over time – and often not for the better.
Osteoporosis, which literally means “porous bone,” is a serious health problem. It affects some 44 million men and women age 50 and older in the United States. Half of all women and 20 percent of men will have an osteoporosis-related fracture during in their lives.
Thin bones are weak bones and they can be easy to break.
Why so weak?
As we age, our bones lose calcium and other minerals. New bone formation slows and our bodies reabsorb old bone more quickly. These changes usually happen gradually, over many years. The result can be brittle, fragile bones that are prone to fractures, even without injury. For many people, a broken bone is the first sign that osteoporosis is present.
Getting ahead of osteoporosis
Prevention is always better than treatment and anyone can take steps to keep their bones strong and healthy.
The U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases suggests these measures to prevent osteoporosis:
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in vitamin D and calcium.
• Get frequent exercise that’s designed to help strengthen bones. Your health care provider can recommend specific exercises.
• Take medications designed to prevent bone loss or increase bone mass.
• Take steps to prevent falls, which increase your chances of breaking a bone, such as the hip, wrist or spine. Such steps include removing clutter inside the home, wearing low-heeled shoes, securing rugs to the floor and installing grab bars in the bathroom.
In addition, if you are at high-risk for developing osteoporosis, your health care provider may order bone mineral density testing, known as a densitometry or DEXA scan, to measure the amount of bone you have. A spine CT can also show loss of bone mineral density and in severe cases where osteoporosis is confirmed, a spine or hip X-ray might be used to look for past fractures or collapsed spinal bones.
Treating and living with osteoporosis
A painful fracture and a diagnosis of osteoporosis can be disheartening, to be sure. But there is some positive news.
Though most experts agree that osteoporosis cannot be reversed, there are effective treatments that can control pain from the disease, slow or stop bone loss, and prevent fractures. Lifestyle changes can help prevent falls or mishaps that might cause a break, and a variety of medications are available to help strengthen bones.
Regular exercise can reduce the likelihood of bone fractures in people with osteoporosis, although care must be taken to avoid falls or too-strenuous impact, which itself could break a bone.
Good alternatives include: weight-bearing exercises like tennis, dancing, walking and jogging; resistance exercises like weight lifting, elastic bands; balance exercises like tai chi, yoga; or riding a stationary bicycle.
Your health care provider will ask you to quit smoking and to limit your alcohol consumption. Alcohol interferes with your body’s absorption of calcium, vitamin D and other bone nutrients.
Preventing falls is also critical and your health care provider can give you advice that may include avoiding sedating medications, clearing your home of hazards and getting your vision checked regularly.
What’s your risk?
If you are concerned about osteoporosis, talk to your health care provider about lifestyle improvements you can make, as well as possible screening to see where you stand in terms of current bone density.
It’s never too early, or too late, to keep your bones in the best possible shape they can be.
Dr. Tanya Wilke is a board-certified family physician who specializes in women’s health. She practices at Enumclaw Medical Center, a part of the Franciscan Medical Group.