Although they may seem hard and unchanging, your bones are living tissues that transform throughout your lifetime.
Through a process called resorption, your body continuously breaks down old bone and builds new bone. However, bone loss occurs when more old bone is reabsorbed than new bone is created, leading to low bone density, bone weakness, and porous bones, also known as osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a common bone disease that occurs when your body loses too much bone mass. It affects an estimated 10 million Americans, and an additional 44 million Americans have low bone density, putting them at an increased risk of developing the disease.
As your bones become less dense, they weaken and are more prone to breakage. In fact, some bones may become so brittle that even minor falls and mild stresses from bending, coughing, and sneezing can cause them to break.
Osteoporosis and low bone density are very serious conditions that will affect about half of all women and 25 percent of all men over 50. The older the patient is, the more serious osteoporosis becomes. This condition can especially be dangerous if an older patient breaks their hip since a broken hip may cause permanent mobility issues, including paralysis. More serious breaks stemming from osteoporosis may result in long-term nursing home care or even death.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent osteoporosis, identify it in its early stages, and treat it if you do end up developing this disease.
Who Is Most at Risk for Osteoporosis?
While osteoporosis affects men and women of all ages and races, Caucasian and Asian women who are post-menopausal are at the highest risk. Once women experience menopause, their bodies don’t produce as much estrogen, which is essential in the production of cells that produce new bones. Women who have been treated for breast cancer may also be at a higher risk for osteoporosis since many treatments, such as hormone therapies, reduce estrogen levels.
Similarly, older men are more prone to developing osteoporosis since they experience lower levels of the male sex hormone, testosterone, as they age. Men who have been treated for prostate cancer will also be at a higher risk for osteoporosis since these treatments reduce testosterone levels.
Additionally, people who have broken a bone in the past, experience thyroid problems, live a sedentary lifestyle, or regularly use tobacco or consume alcohol may be at a higher risk.
Genetics can also play a role in your risk of developing osteoporosis. If you have a parent or sibling with osteoporosis, you are more likely to develop it yourself. Bone mass is the most important predictor of your osteoporosis risk.
What Causes Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone. Most people reach their peak bone mass in their early twenties, and as your age, your risk for developing osteoporosis increases. Other causes of osteoporosis may include:
- Autoimmune disorders including rheumatoid arthritis and Ankylosing spondylitis
- Digestive and gastrointestinal disorders, including celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Cancers, including breast cancer and prostate cancer
- Mental illness, including depression and eating disorders
- Endocrine/hormonal disorders, including diabetes, hyperparathyroidism, irregular periods, premature menopause, low levels of testosterone and estrogen in men
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Female athlete triad (includes loss of menstrual periods, an eating disorder, and excessive exercise)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Certain medications, including steroids
How Can You Prevent Osteoporosis?
“While osteoporosis may have many different causes the good news is this: you can prevent it.” said Aimee Ando, DO, physician at Penn Family Medicine University City. She went on to explain: “A healthy diet and exercise are both excellent ways to prevent bone loss and to strengthen already weakened bones. Additionally, hormone replacement therapy may be a viable option for women who are at risk.”
The three key nutrients your body needs to prevent bone loss and to strengthen bones are calcium, Vitamin D, and protein.
Men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 need no less than 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. This amount increases to 1,200 milligrams once women turn 50 and men turn 70. Seeds, cheese, yogurt, sardines and canned salmon, beans and lentils, almonds, and leafy greens are all excellent sources of calcium. Calcium supplements may also be helpful.
Sunlight is one of the best ways to absorb vitamin D, but soaking up the sun’s rays may put you at risk of developing skin cancer. Fortunately, there are other ways to get your daily dose of vitamin D, including tuna, mackerel, orange juice, beef liver, and egg yolks. Vitamin D is available in supplements, as well.
Protein can be found in eggs, chicken breasts, nuts, oats, dairy products, broccoli, quinoa, and lentils. It is also available in supplement form, especially as a powder.
“Balance training and exercises like lunges and core-strengthening are an excellent addition to your fitness routine,” said Dr. Ando. These exercises can be performed with free weights, exercise bands, weight machines, or your own body weight.
Other exercises that have been proven to be beneficial for preventing osteoporosis include swimming, tennis, jogging/running, jumping rope, hiking, dancing, and other forms of aerobics.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy may be a great option for women who are at risk of osteoporosis. This treatment can help to increase a woman’s estrogen and/or progestin levels, which are needed for the production of new bone mass.
How Can You Treat Osteoporosis
It can be difficult to diagnose osteoporosis since oftentimes, the first sign is a broken bone. If your doctor suspects you might be at risk for developing osteoporosis, he or she may order a DEXA scan to check your bone density and measure bone loss and osteoporosis at an early stage.
If you do end up developing osteoporosis, there are still many treatment options available to help you to manage pain and prevent further weakening or breaking of bones. Osteoporosis is most commonly treated using one or more medications to help strengthen your bones and to prevent your body from breaking them down.
If you think you may be at risk for osteoporosis, talk to your primary care provider about screenings and treatment options for your current and future needs.