Osteoporosis: What You Need to Know

If you’re a woman over the age of 50, you are at risk of breaking a bone this year. That’s because you may have osteoporosis, a condition that primarily affects women. Men are not off the hook, though. Up to 20% of current patients with osteoporosis are men—that’s two million men in the U.S. today.

What is osteoporosis?

Literally meaning “porous bone,” osteoporosis is a bone disease common among aging women. Healthy bone structure, when magnified, looks like a honeycomb. With normal aging, we lose our bone mass, and the spaces of the “honeycomb” widen. This causes weaker bones due to the decreased bone density. Too much lost bone mass results in osteoporosis, which leaves sufferers at higher risk of fractures. In severe cases, patients can even break a bone from sneezing too hard. Some people with osteoporosis will lose height or develop a hunched posture.

Osteoporosis is a silent disease, meaning you don’t feel your bones weakening. In many cases, breaking a bone is the first sign of it. People with osteoporosis will often suffer severe fractures from minor falls. Hip, spine, and wrist fractures are most common, though other bones are prone to breaking as well. Hip and spine fractures are serious injuries, with potentially life-threatening complications.

The disease is usually diagnosed by a bone density scan, an x-ray exam that measures bone mineral density.

Who is at risk for osteoporosis?

Being a woman over 50 is the number one risk factor for osteoporosis. This is for two reasons: women’s bones are generally smaller and thinner than men’s, and estrogen—a female hormone that protects bones—falls sharply after menopause. Older age is a factor because bone density peaks around age 30. Bone mass begins to decrease after that, so by the time you reach your 50s and 60s you’re more at risk.

Other unchangeable risk factors are family history, bone structure, ethnicity, and certain diseases.  Thinner and/or shorter people are more at risk for developing osteoporosis, and studies show Caucasian and Asian women are more likely than other women to develop it.

Some medications can increase your likelihood of getting osteoporosis. Steroids, such as prednisone, is one class of drugs that puts you more at risk.

Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption both lead to brittle bones, and put you at risk for osteoporosis. If you smoke or drink and are at risk for the disease, work on kicking the habit as soon as possible. Every lifestyle change you make to strengthen your bones will help you fight osteoporosis. Even if you have no other risk factors, smoking and drinking are bad for your bones.

Is osteoporosis curable?

In short, no. But you can curb its progression and prevent fractures from happening. The main objective with osteoporosis is to maintain, or even improve, bone density. There are medications available that either slow down the loss of bone mass, or actually trigger new bone growth.

All osteoporosis medications carry side effects; some more significant than others. If your doctor recommends drugs for osteoporosis, make sure to discuss the possible side effects with him.

You can also make some lifestyle choices that can improve your bone density. Make sure you get enough vitamin D and calcium. Calcium—found in dairy products—is integral to bone health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium better. You need both to protect your bones.

Exercise, particularly weight-bearing exercise such as walking, is also important for bone health. Just be careful, because people with osteoporosis can sustain serious injuries from a minor bump. Speak with your doctor about the types and amounts of exercise right for you.

Can I prevent osteoporosis?

Your best chances at preventing osteoporosis is by having a good foundation. It’s important for anyone with risk factors of osteoporosis to start working on prevention early in life. A calcium-rich diet, along with vitamin D, are great ways to build up your bones from a young age. Teens should be physically active: the more active they are, the more bone mass they build, and the more they reduce their chance of developing osteoporosis.

If you have osteoporosis, talk with your teenage daughter or granddaughter about her risk of developing the disease later in life. Taking the proper steps now will help ensure her a healthier tomorrow.