As we age, our bodies become a little less agile and a little more fragile. Bone health is especially important to manage as we get older because oftentimes our bones weaken and can develop into a condition known as osteoporosis. While it is not always entirely preventable, understanding the causes and treatments for osteoporosis can help.
Signs of osteoporosis
As we already pointed out, osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones resulting from a decline in bone density where small holes form within the bone. As we age our bones become thinner and less capable of withstanding impact or supporting movement, thereby becoming more likely to break.
Osteoporosis frequently develops slowly over a long period of time, allowing it to go unnoticed. However, decreasing bone density makes these individuals more susceptible to bone fractures without exerting much physical activity. For instance, fractures can easily occur from a fall or even from something as simple as doing household tasks.
Fractures most often occur in the hip, spine, and wrist, as these areas of the body are vulnerable to movement. The most serious complications that arise are from hip fractures. The hips absorb most of the impact when we walk. We also tend to lose our balance as we age, which increases the risk of falling or tripping, causing an injury or bone break. Seniors who suffer from a hip fracture can have difficulties recovering and are often restricted to the use of a cane or wheelchair for the remainder of their lives.
Causes and preventions of osteoporosis
Roughly 54 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis or low bone mass. On average, about one in two women or one in five men over age 65 will incur a fracture because of osteoporosis. However, being aware of the causes of bone loss can help determine your risk of getting osteoporosis.
Factors such as demographics, body composition and lifestyle or habits can put you at higher risk for osteoporosis. Here are a few to consider:
- Age: Everyone loses bone density as they age. Beginning in our 30s, the body starts to build less new bone to replace the old bone, essentially decreasing bone growth and strength. Although osteoporosis can surface at any age, it takes time to form, making it more likely in people 65 and older.
- Body size: Individuals with naturally petite and thin body sizes are more likely to develop bone fragility.
- Ethnicity: Research shows Caucasians and Asians are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis.
- Family history: If you or members of your family have a history of broken bones or osteoporosis, you are at a greater risk for the disease.
- Nutrition: Low body weight, poor diet or nutrition, and decreased intake of calcium and vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis.
- Lifestyle: Bones can weaken when accompanied by low activity rates, alcohol, and smoking.
- Medications: Certain medications such as steroids can increase your likelihood of bone loss.
Osteoporosis is most commonly identified with a bone density test. At the age of 65 for women and 70 for men, a bone density test should be administered, if not before. Many doctors recommend that women receive the test once they begin menopause, due to the body’s natural decrease in estrogen which is a bone-building hormone.
A bone density test is a safe, non-invasive X-ray that compares your current bone density to your peak bone density during the ages of 20 to 25, depending on your gender and ethnicity.
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, follow-up bone density scans will help monitor its progression and indicate how well the treatment plan is working. Additional tests, such as a complete physical, skeletal x-ray, and specified laboratory tests may also be applicable to determine the extent of the condition.
Treatment for osteoporosis
Unfortunately, bone loss is not something that can be replenished, so treatment plans are primarily focused on reducing further loss. The treatment team is often a coordination between your primary care physician, an endocrinologist, gynecologist, and/or orthopedist.
Key treatments include increasing physical activity and exercise, consuming a healthier diet that includes more leafy greens and foods high in calcium, physical therapy to improve mobility and help prevent falls. Doctors may also prescribe calcium and vitamin D supplements and medications that can regenerate the production of estrogen and protect bone mass.
Taking proactive steps to prevent bone loss begins with nutrition. A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is vital, as they are the most prominent bone-building elements and will lower the risk of osteoporosis. Calcium keeps your bones strong while vitamin D is responsible for the retention of calcium. Men and women ages 19 to 50 need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. After age 50, the body needs roughly 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams each day. Likewise, men and women ages 19 to 70 need 600 IU (International Unit) of vitamin D each day. After age 70, the body needs 800 IU per day. But how can you get an adequate amount?
One way to get a good dose of vitamin D is sun exposure for at least five to 15 minutes per week and managing a diet of dairy, greens, juice, fish, and grains. For those who are lactose intolerant, there are other sources of calcium and vitamin D available. These include sardines, tuna, salmon, spinach, orange juice, broccoli, kale, collard greens, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and other common greens.
Exercise is another important practice for prevention. Just as it is important to continue to stretch and tone muscles, an active lifestyle helps maintain bone strength. A good goal is to undergo weight-bearing exercise for at least 30 minutes three to four times a week. Weight-bearing does not necessarily mean lifting dumbbells. It can be any exercise that utilizes your body’s muscles and bones while working against gravity. With regular weight-bearing activity, bones build additional cells that make them stronger. Following is a list of bone-building activities to consider:
- Brisk walking, jogging and hiking
- Tennis or other racquet sports
- Team sports, such as soccer, baseball, or basketball
- Dancing, step aerobics, and stair climbing
- Weight training with light weights or machines
Swimming and biking are not weight-bearing activities, but they can be a good alternative if you have a health condition that prevents you from doing weight-bearing exercises.
Lifestyle or habits such as good food choices and increased physical activities are not enough to qualify as living a healthy lifestyle. Leading a healthier lifestyle requires cutting out harmful toxins, such as smoking (nicotine or recreational drugs) and drinking alcohol. Additionally, it’s important to check with your doctor and verify whether you have any vitamin or immunodeficiencies, or if you are taking any prescription drugs that could potentially decrease bone mass.
For more information on osteoporosis and how to prevent it, visit http://www.orthoinfo.org/.