STEPPING OUT WITH SENIORS: It’s never to late to learn about bone health

By Mary Andrews

If you have been told that you have osteoporosis, do you know what that is? Do you have osteoarthritis, too? Are they the same thing? What are they anyway?

Let’s try to clear up the confusion. This month we are going to talk about the disease of osteoporosis and next month that of osteoarthritis.

Osteoporosis and osteoarthritis are different disorders that can affect both men and women. Both involve your bones, hence the use of the term “osteo.” But osteoporosis directly affects the structure of the bones, while osteoarthritis affects the joints.

The word osteoporosis means “bones that are porous” – they have holes in them. This means if we could see through all our organs, muscles, blood, etc., we would see a skeleton that is not solid, but rather weakened by holes all over it. There it would be, trying to do its best to stay strong and hold us upright, just like the steel beams in a tall building, and it would be losing the battle.

Another way to describe this is to look at a chunk of cheddar cheese. It is a solid block with no cracks or crevices or holes. Then look at a chunk of Swiss cheese and notice it has lots of holes in it. A bone suffering from osteoporosis has holes like the Swiss cheese, although not as big. However, as the holes in the bone get bigger over time the bone will get thinner and become more susceptible to breaking, especially in the areas of the spinal vertebrae, hip and wrist.

Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men because they are born with bones 20 to 30 percent less dense than men. Also, women tend to lose bone density after menopause because our body’s estrogen production level drops rapidly and one of estrogen’s jobs is to help maintain bones. However, as men’s testosterone production decreases, they too are at risk for osteoporosis. Add to this the fact that our diets often have too little calcium and vitamin D, we do not exercise much and we may also take medications that affect our body’s ability to build bones and we are in trouble.

Osteoporosis used to be considered a disease that affected women older than 50 and men older than 60. However, today with the pressure from the fashion and entertainment industries telling us that we should all have a skinny, bony body with no fat on it, osteoporosis is showing up in younger women and even in our teenagers. I know of one high school senior ballet dancer who could not dance in toe shoes for her final performance because she has osteoporosis.

Throughout our lives, our bones constantly undergo “remodeling.” Old bone is broken down and new bone is rebuilt to replace it. By the time we are 30, our bones are going to be as strong as they will ever be. The bone strength stays the same until at some point breakdown occurs faster than new bone can be built. When will you know your bones are in trouble? For most of us it is when we fracture one.

Is there any way to tell if you have osteoporosis, rather than waiting for the first bone fracture? No blood test or X-ray will reveal the fact. However, there are two tests available to measure your bones’ density. They are a CT and a DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry).

If your medical history reveals reasons you should have a test done, such as long-term use of thyroid or an excess use of steroid medication such as cortisone or a family history of the disease, your physician may order such a test.

In the meantime, is there anything you can do to prevent this disease or even reverse it?

Despite our lack of information about the structure of our own bones, there are plenty of things you and I can do, whether we are seniors, younger adults or teenagers. You can take action.

Changes in your diet can significantly improve your bones’ health. Put down the sodas which leach calcium out of your bones and drink a glass of milk. Include a glass or two of milk and some other dairy product like low-fat yogurt or string cheese because milk contains calcium which is the basic mineral of the bones. Eat fish once a week, even better have it twice – salmon and tuna, are excellent sources of calcium. Add some dark green vegetables like broccoli. Skip the spinach as it contains oxalate, which blocks calcium from being absorbed.

If your diet is low in calcium, take a supplement. Be sure it also contains Vitamin D as that helps your bones absorb the calcium. There are a variety of recommendations regarding the amount you should take so ask a reliable source. Another good source of Vitamin D is sunshine. I know all the advertising tells you never to go out without sun block, but you need 15 to 20 minutes of sunshine whenever you can get it to help your bones. Then put on the sun block.

Lastly (and you knew I would slip this in somewhere) exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise will do the most wonderful things for your bones. What kind of exercise? You need what is called “weight bearing exercise.” This is any kind of exercise that causes your weight, or that of a resistance machine, to “bear down” on your bones. Why? Because every time you “bear down” (put pressure on your body) it makes your tendons pull on your bones. This, in turn, makes bone more able to absorb calcium and keep strong.

Walking and working with hand weights at home are “weight bearing” exercises. In fact, walking is one of the best overall exercises you can do.

For those of us who are unable to walk very far, or those of us looking for a bigger challenge, we can go to a fitness center or a gym and there, under the eye of a trained and certified personal trainer, learn to use a recumbent bicycle that sits close to the floor and weight machines to make our muscles and bones stronger.

Remember every time you walk, lift an object, pull something toward you or push something away from you, you are performing a “weight bearing” exercise.

There are many health problems we cannot do a lot about, but we can do good things for our bones to help us feel healthier and stand straighter. Step out into good health seniors.

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