Osteoporosis has been labeled a “silent disease.” The reason: our bones can become weak or thin over the course of many years with no signs or symptoms, until we incur a painful and disabling fracture. This is a serious condition that may be impacting you — or someone you love. And what we all need to know is that prevention needs to start early in life to protect our bones.
Osteoporosis is more common than we suspect. According to The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), about 54 million Americans have osteoporosis and low bone mass, placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis. Studies suggest that approximately 1 in 2 women and up to 1 in 4 men age 50 and older will break a bone due to osteoporosis. In fact, fractures that result from osteoporosis are more common than heart attacks, stroke, and breast cancer, combined.
This disease is not exclusive to the elderly — which it is often associated with — but it can impact both sexes at any age. Women are affected more than men because their bone mass is generally lower than that of men’s. Osteoporosis is also one of the major leading causes of death, not the disease itself per se but the secondary complications of the disease. We all need to take proactive measures in helping to prevent it.
What is osteoporosis?
The literal meaning of the word is “porous bones.” Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become weak due to decreased bone mineral density, or thinning of the bone. As a result, they are more likely to fracture. According to The National Osteoporosis Foundation, the most common sites of fracture are the wrist, spine, shoulder and hip.
Who is at risk for osteoporosis?
While osteoporosis can occur in both men and women at any age, it is most common in post-menopausal women. Additional risk factors include increasing age; low body weight; being of Caucasian or Asian decent; smoking and alcohol use; the use of certain medications such as steroids; and medical conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, breast and prostate cancer, and those that block the absorption of nutrients necessary for strong bones. In fact, studies show that 1 in every 3 women and 1 in every 5 men will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their life.
How do I know if I have osteoporosis?
If osteoporosis is suspected, your healthcare provider will perform a thorough history (this includes a risk factor assessment) and physical exam. He or she may also order urine, blood, and bone density tests. Today, the most accurate and advanced bone density test is the DEXA scan—Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry. It involves a double x-ray beam that takes pictures of our hip and lumbar spine. Generally speaking, the test takes approximately 20 minutes. And the good news is that it is not painful and the radiation levels are significantly less than what one would receive from a chest x-ray.
Also, The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for osteoporosis in women at age 65 years, and earlier if they have risk factors. At this time, they do not provide guidelines for general screening in men, due to insufficient evidence that there is a benefit. However, USPSTF states that males who have an elevated risk for osteoporosis may benefit.
The American College of Physicians recommends that men be assessed yearly for osteoporosis risk factors starting at age 50. The primary risk factor for men is when someone in their family has had osteoporosis. Further, there are some organizations that recommend that all men begin routine bone density screenings at the age of 70. It is important to discuss with your healthcare provider these recommendations and what is right for you.
What lifestyle changes are used to treat osteoporosis as well as help prevent it?
Weight-bearing physical activities such as walking, jogging, and weightlifting are crucial because it involves bone impact that stimulates the cells responsible for the synthesis and mineralization of bone. Additionally, activities that improve balance can help decrease falls and resultant fractures.
And, too, in order to build and repair bone, our body needs an adequate supply of fuel and building blocks. Choose foods and beverages that are rich in calcium and vitamin D:
—Calcium: dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt); vegetables and greens (spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, collards, celery, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus); foods fortified with calcium (some orange juice, cereals); and beans (black, pinto, kidney, white, and baked)
—Vitamin D: fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel); cheese; egg yolks; and foods fortified with vitamin D (some dairy products, orange juice, cereals, and soy milk)
Additionally, if you are a smoker, it is important to quit and also to stay away from secondhand smoke. And, too, limit alcohol intake.
What medications are available to treat osteoporosis?
In certain circumstances, your healthcare provider may prescribe osteoporosis medications. Our bones are continuously being broken down and rebuilt; this is a normal process. However, with age, our body becomes less capable of rebuilding, but, yet, continues to be broken down. This results in decreased bone density, thinning, and weakness. Most osteoporosis medications work by slowing the breakdown of bone.
How can we prevent osteoporosis?
With nearly half of the adult population being affected, it is imperative to apply preventive measures early in life to protect those with low bone mass from developing osteoporosis.
Peak bone mass is achieved in females between the ages of 16-20 years and in males between 20-25 years of age. During our mid-30s men and women begin to lose bone mass. And post-menopause, women lose bone mass at a rate of 2-3 percent every year! It is important to provide support to our lovely bones throughout our life, so they can stay lovely.
Again I would like to underscore, we all need to take measures to help prevent osteoporosis — which includes fortifying your diet by choosing nutritious foods rich in calcium, iron, vitamin D and other minerals. And too, decreasing your intake of alcohol; staying away from smoking, and physical exercise will definitely help to prevent the formation of this disease, since it continuously promotes bone re-mineralization and formation. The choices we make today impacts the life we lead tomorrow; my hope is our time together will help you make better choices that will give you a longer and healthier life.
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.