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Known as the silent disease, osteoporosis creeps up and often only becomes evident when a bump or minor fall results in a broken bone. Without a bone mineral density test, many people live with the disease for years, not realizing their lives are at risk.

While we know that bones will often break in “bad” accidents, healthy bone normally withstands minor accidents. If bone density is poor however, the bones will be porous and brittle, and therefore fragile, and they will be more likely to fracture from any sort of force. But being forewarned does help, and a bone mineral density test will check bone density and strength, and pick up whether osteoporosis has already set in.

Unfortunately, many people only discover they have osteoporosis after they fall and break a bone. And the statistics are horrifying. A recent report out of the Harvard School of Public Health states that osteoporosis is the cause of more than 1.5 million fractures every year, and of these, 300,000 are hip fractures.

Experts generally recommend all women should be screened for the condition at age 65, if not earlier. Since the most common bones to give in to osteoporosis are hips, spine and wrists, screening is usually done of the spine and hips. Results are usually indicated as a T-score; and if it is lower than –2.5, osteoporosis is diagnosed.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) osteoporosis expert Dr. Joan McGowan likens our bones to “any other engineering material.” Some structures reach a point where they can no longer support the weight put on them. Bones affected by osteoporosis are the same.

Causes Of Osteoporosis

According to a report by the US Surgeon General in 2004, Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General, most Americans consume less than the recommended levels of calcium. Since a lack of calcium leads to reduced bone density and consequently to a higher risk of bone fractures calcium is a key factor.

People who are inactive physically have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, as do those who are very thin, or have a very small body frame – particularly as they get older, because bones will become weaker and thinner with age.

Women are more prone to osteoporosis than men, and most commonly when their estrogen level drops after they have been through menopause. However, men with low testosterone levels are more at risk than others. Race can also be a factor: research indicates that whites and those of Asian descent are most at risk.

Others factors that have been found to contribute to weak bones include:

  • Too much alcohol. Probably because alcohol seems to prevent calcium being absorbed by the body. Experts say that one shouldn’t have more than two alcoholic drinks per day.
  • Certain types of medication. These include but are not limited to corticosteroid medication, cortisone, dexamethasone, Prednisone, some anti-seizure drugs, aromatase inhibitors used for treating breast cancer, methotrexate, and proton pump inhibitors. 
  • Eating disorders and conditions.  Some affect the ability of the body to absorb calcium, others cause bone loss. Disorders include celiac, Crohn’s and Cushing’s disease, as well as bulimia and anorexia.

Preventing And Treating Osteoporosis

According to the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center, osteoporosis can generally be prevented by eating a diet that is rich in calcium and vitamin D (which enables the body to absorb calcium,) by exercising regularly, and by not drinking alcohol or smoking “in excess,” because both smoking and drinking have the effect of leeching calcium out of the bones.

The Harvard report mentioned above suggests additional factors that are thought to be effective in preventing, or at least lowering the risk of osteoporosis. These include limiting:

  • Caffeine intake because it tends to promote the excretion of calcium into ones urine. Caffeine has also been found to lower bone mineral density – specifically in older women who drank cola daily, possibly because it contains a lot of phosphorous.
  • Protein intake because too much releases acids into the bloodstream, and to neutralize these, the body draws calcium from the bones.
  • The amount of vitamin A taken, because “pre-formed” vitamin A (retinol) seems to increase the risk of fractures. The vitamin A precursor, beat-carotene, is believed to reduce this risk.  

If osteoporosis is diagnosed, diet needs to be changed, an exercise plan introduced, and the person suffering from the disease should do everything possible to lead a healthy lifestyle. Medication might be necessary – and it usually is.

A major step for those who are diagnosed with osteoporosis is to prevent the possibility of falls. While all safeguards make sense, a common conundrum is that when doctors confirm the osteoporosis diagnosis, many people stop exercise and minimize their activity. This, of course, works against overcoming the cycle. 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • National Action Plan for Bone Health: Recommendations from the Summit for a National Action Plan for Bone Health by the National Coalition for Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases. Washington D.C. 2008 Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General. 2004 Vitamin D Deficiency by Michael F. Holick, MD, PhD, The New England Journal of Medicine 2007 Photograph of X-ray courtesy Government of Western Australia Photograph of walkers courtesy Trailnet via Flickr
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