Strengthen Your Bones Now to Prevent Osteoporosis Later
By Adrienne Hollander, MD, Virtua Rheumatologist
Osteoporosis is a medical condition that weakens bones and makes them brittle. Although osteoporosis is sometimes characterized as a woman’s disease, men are also at risk of developing it. Learning about osteoporosis risk factors, screening and prevention is the first step toward maintaining bone health throughout your life.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a fragile bone syndrome that occurs with age. It increases your risk for developing fractures as a result of minor falls or everyday activities.
As you get older, you experience bone loss. This means your body breaks down old bone faster than it is able to create new bone. As a result, older people often have weak or brittle bones. Most people reach peak bone mass in their early 20s and build less bone by the time they’re in their 30s.
One of the greatest risks of having osteoporosis are fractures, which are especially common in your spine, hips or wrists. Studies show that patients who experience osteoporosis-related hip fractures are 25 percent more likely to die within a year. And, patients who get an osteoporosis-related compression fracture in their spine are likely to develop another similar fracture in the future.
What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?
There are typically no symptoms of osteoporosis when it's in its early stages, which is why many doctors refer to it as a “silent disease.” Like high blood pressure, which is also a silent syndrome, osteoporosis often goes undetected. Most people who have it only experience symptoms after their bones are significantly weakened. These symptoms include:
- Gradual loss of height over time
- A stooped posture
- Back pain caused by fractured or collapsed vertebrae
- Bone fractures that occur easily after a standing-height fall or minor bump
Am I at risk for osteoporosis?
Women who are older than age 65 are at an increased risk for developing osteoporosis. If you’re a woman who is younger than age 65 and you’ve already gone through menopause, you may be at increased risk for developing osteoporosis if you meet 2 of more of the following criteria:
- You’re taking or have taken a medication that increases osteoporosis risk, such as certain cancer drugs
- You have a family history of osteoporosis
- You suffer from a medical condition that causes poor absorption of nutrients, such as celiac disease
- You’re a current or former smoker
- You drink more than five cups of coffee per day
- You suffer from an overactive thyroid
Men who are older than age 70 are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. If you’re a man who is younger than age 70, you may also be at risk if you suffer from low testosterone or have had prostate antigen treatment.
How can I find out if I have osteoporosis?
If you’re at risk for osteoporosis, it’s important to be screened for it before you develop problems. Osteoporosis is detected using a simple, painless test called a bone scan (also called bone density testing or DEXA). This test uses X-rays to determine how strong your bones are.
How can I prevent osteoporosis?
If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, you’ll need medical treatment to strengthen your bones.
If your bones are healthy, or if you’ve been diagnosed with low bone density, you can slow the progression with preventative and lifestyle changes.
- Eat a variety of calcium-rich foods such as dairy products and green, leafy vegetables.
- If your diet lacks calcium, talk to your doctor about taking a calcium supplement. Because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, your doctor will likely recommend taking a vitamin D supplement or a supplement that combines calcium with vitamin D.
- Do weight-bearing exercises such as walking and running help prevent osteoporosis. In fact, any exercise that includes a heel strike sends signals to your body to create more bone.
- Reduce your risk of falling to prevent fractures and other complications related to osteoporosis. Exercises that strengthen and tone your body and core such as tai chi, yoga and Pilates can help with balance and stability.
By understanding your risk factors and some common osteoporosis prevention strategies, you can take steps today to ensure strong bones later in life. If you think you’re at risk for developing osteoporosis, you should talk to your doctor.
To schedule an appointment with a Virtua osteoporosis specialist,
Updated May 8, 2017