What is osteoporosis? Is osteoporosis a normal sign of aging? Does osteoporosis only affect women? Here’s the truth: What you don’t know about osteoporosis may hurt you.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a common disease that weakens bones. As it does, your risk of sudden and unexpected fractures goes up. Osteopenia is the forerunner of osteoporosis. It is a silent but destructive condition that robs bones during a woman’s, even a young woman’s, most productive time.
No matter what your age or sex, osteoporosis and osteopenia can affect you. Your bones might seem sturdy now. You may be very active and doing the things you want to do. But osteoporosis and osteopenia are quiet, accomplished thieves. In fact, there are usually no visible signs. You may notice a loss of height or a Dowager’s hump over time. But chances are good the first sign that you have one of these conditions will be a painful fracture.
What is osteoporosis bone loss?
The bone loss with osteoporosis occurs over many years and is severe. It’s so severe that the normal stress on bones from sitting, standing, coughing, or even hugging a loved one can result in painful fractures and immobility. Then, after the first fracture, you are at risk for more fractures. These future fractures may cause you to live with daily chronic pain. They can cause you disability. They may rob you of your independence.
That’s why it’s important to learn all you can about osteoporosis and osteopenia. Then you can take immediate steps to keep your bones strong. That way you can prevent bone loss and painful fractures.
What are osteoporosis symptoms?
Osteoporosis often progresses without symptoms or pain. Losing height may be noticeable. Or a Dowager’s hump may develop with age. Usually, though, a doctor diagnoses osteoporosis after a painful fracture occurs.
That fracture is usually in the back or hips. Painful fractures are debilitating and disfiguring. They can result in loss of mobility and independence.
What is osteopenia?
With osteopenia, there are no warning signs until you fracture a bone. Osteopenia is the forerunner of osteoporosis. If it isn’t diagnosed and isn’t treated, osteopenia can lead directly to osteoporosis. With osteoporosis, your bones become thin, weaker, and fracture easily.
The good news is if you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, you can get treatments. Those osteoporosis treatments can slow bone loss, increase the amount of bone you have, and lower your chances of fractures. But there’s no reason to wait until you can’t reverse how weak your bones have become. Detecting osteopenia with a bone density test is easy. From there, making a plan to prevent disfiguring and painful fractures is simple.
Why is there so much concern about osteopenia?
If you’re wondering why osteopenia has become such a topic of concern for younger and middle-aged women, consider this. Years ago, people didn’t think it was important to treat hypertension (high blood pressure). They didn’t think it was important because there were no obvious consequences. We now know, though, that treating high blood pressure in the present lowers the risk of stroke years later.
Again, thirty years ago, blood cholesterol levels that were not over 300 were not considered abnormally high. Now we know that treating cholesterol when the levels are at 200 can prevent heart attacks years later.
Research has shown that the connection between bone loss and fractures is stronger than the connection between high blood pressure and stroke. It’s also stronger than the connection between high blood cholesterol and heart attack. You can stop osteopenia and prevent a fracture. But you have to take action early in life. Treating osteopenia before a broken bone happens is as effective as treating high blood pressure before a stroke or high cholesterol before a heart attack.
What is an osteoporosis fracture?
A fracture is a break in a bone. If you have osteoporosis, your bones become thin, lose structure, and become fragile. You could lift a bag of groceries and suffer a fracture or a collapsed vertebra in your back. Or you might stoop down to tie your shoe and feel a sudden, severe pain from a fracture.
While the pain from the fracture may subside, you may develop continued chronic pain. As spinal bones collapse, deformities in your spine, such as a dowager’s hump, and other areas will become obvious to both you and people around you. You may feel stiff most of the time and have trouble being active.
There are ways to prevent and treat osteoporosis. So no one has to suffer with fractures and chronic pain. Learn more about preventing fractures in this guide. Then you can stay active all your life.
What is the cause of osteoporosis?
We don’t know a lot about what causes osteoporosis. We do know how osteoporosis develops throughout a person’s life. Bones are complex, living tissue. Your body constantly breaks down old bone and rebuilds new bone. This bone-building process is called “remodeling.”
As you are growing up, your body builds more bone than it removes. During childhood, your bones become larger and stronger. Peak bone mass occurs when you have the maximum amount of bone mass you will ever have. For most people, this usually happens during the third decade of life. Then, at a certain age, the bone remodeling process changes. New bone gets laid down at a slower rate. This slowdown results in a decrease in the total amount of bone you have.
If this loss of bone reaches a certain point, you have osteopenia. When bone loss becomes more severe, you have osteoporosis. Both men and women with osteopenia or osteoporosis are at a higher risk of fractures.
In the early stages of osteoporosis, there may be no signs or symptoms. As the breakdown and removal of bone continues at a faster pace than bone building, the degree of bone loss may be detectable on a bone mineral density (BMD) test or bone density scan.
You may be surprised to learn that many factors contribute to osteoporosis. For instance, a decrease in estrogen at menopause is one cause. There is also a genetic component. If your mother or grandmother had osteoporosis, the chances are higher for you to have it too.
Eating a diet that’s low in calcium, getting little exercise, and smoking cigarettes also contribute to getting osteoporosis. It’s important to know all you can about what causes osteoporosis. Then you can take preventive steps to stop this disease, before it develops and you get a fracture.
Does osteoporosis start in childhood?
In childhood and adolescence, the body constantly breaks down old bone and rebuilds new bone. It does this through a process called “remodeling.” During this time, the body builds more bone than it removes, and so bones grow and get stronger.
You often hear how important it is for women to get enough calcium. But it’s just as important, maybe even more important, that kids and teens get ample bone-boosting calcium. It’s also important for them to exercise daily to build strong bones.
When does osteoporosis usually happen in women?
For most women, the total amount of bone peaks somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30. It may peak even sooner for some women, depending on what their risk factors for osteoporosis are.
When the total amount of bone peaks, the tide turns. At some point, usually around the age of 35, women start to lose bone.
While some bone is lost each year, the rate of bone loss increases dramatically in the five to 10 years after menopause. Then, for several years, the breakdown of bone occurs at a much greater pace than the building of new bone. This is the process that eventually causes osteoporosis.
During this time, even though your bones may still be strong enough to prevent unusual fractures and you have no signs to alert you to the disease, bone loss may become detectable with a bone density test.
Does osteoporosis happen in men too?
Yes. Osteoporosis happens in men too. In fact, about 1.5 million men over the age of 65 have osteoporosis. Osteoporosis usually starts later, about 10 years later, in men. Still, osteoporosis in men is just as disabling and just as painful.
How common is osteoporosis today?
With the aging of America, osteoporosis is becoming increasingly common. Among people 50 years of age and older, 55% are at significant risk for osteoporosis. In the United States, more than 10 million men and women have osteoporosis. And nearly another 34 million are thought to have low bone mass. That places them at increased risk for osteoporosis.
What increases my risk of getting osteoporosis?
The rate of bone loss varies from person to person. But around midlife, bones become thinner. How fast or how slow you lose bone depends on a number of factors:
- Whether you have a fracture after age 40
- Your activity level
- How much calcium you get
- Your family history
- Your history of taking certain medications
- Your lifestyle habits, such as whether you smoke or how much alcohol you consume
- The onset of menopause
How are menopause and estrogen related to osteoporosis?
Estrogen is important for maintaining bone density in women. When estrogen levels drop after menopause, bone loss speeds up. This can happen with natural menopause or an early surgical menopause if you have your ovaries removed.
During the first five to 10 years after menopause, women can lose up to 2%-4% of bone density each year. That means they can lose as much as 25% to 30% of their bone density during that time.
Accelerated bone loss after menopause is a major cause of osteoporosis in women. For women, having the strongest bones possible before you enter menopause is the best protection against debilitating fractures.
What is my risk for osteoporosis?
It’s smart to know the risk factors for osteoporosis. By changing those risk factors you can control, you can reduce your chance of osteoporosis. Key risk factors for fractures include the following.
Family history: Osteoporosis seems to run in families. If your mother had hip fracture or spinal collapse fracture, chances are you are at risk for osteoporosis. That means you are at risk of reduced bone mass and fractures.
Sex: Women are four times more likely than men to get osteoporosis. But men also suffer from osteoporosis.
Age: The risk of osteoporosis increases with age. Women over the age of 50 have the greatest risk of developing osteoporosis. Anyone of any age can have osteoporosis. But the older you are, the more risk you have of fractures and osteoporosis.
Bone structure and body weight. Petite and thin women have a greater risk of developing osteoporosis. Weight loss after age 50 in women also seems to increase the risk of hip fractures. Weight gain decreases the risk. Small-boned, thin men have a greater risk of osteoporosis than men with larger frames and more body weight.
History of fractures: Having one fracture increases the chance of more fractures.
Smoking : Smoking increases the risk of fractures. Studies show that cigarette smokers (past or current smokers) have lower bone densities and higher fracture risks. Women who smoke have lower levels of estrogen — a key component for having healthy bones — compared to nonsmokers. They also frequently go through menopause earlier.
Medications: Some medications may increase your risk of osteoporosis. These include long-term use of steroids (prednisone), thyroid medication, anticonvulsants, antacids, and other medications.
How is osteoporosis related to menopause?
In menopause, there’s a dramatic decline in the female hormone, estrogen. This decline in estrogen slows the bone remodeling process and causes an accelerated rate of bone loss. This more rapid loss of bone continues for about 10 years after menopause. The rate of bone loss eventually returns to premenopausal levels. But bone formation does not. This causes postmenopausal women to have a much greater chance of having a fracture.
In addition, having an early menopause (before age 40) also increases the chance of osteoporosis and fractures. Having prolonged periods of time when hormone levels are low and/or absent, such as can happen with excess exercise, causes loss of bone mass and osteoporosis.
How do I know if I have osteoporosis?
First, check your risk factors. Then, ask your doctor about a bone mineral density (BMD) test or bone scan. A bone mineral density test can provide information about your bone health before problems begin. Bone mineral density tests use very small amounts of radiation to determine the strength of your bones.
How is osteoporosis treated?
Many osteoporosis treatments and osteoporosis medications are successful in stopping bone loss and reducing your risks of fractures. Some osteoporosis treatments include dietary and lifestyle choices. Other treatments include osteoporosis medications. These medications can slow bone loss or build new bone. Osteoporosis treatment can include:
- estrogen replacement therapy
- osteoporosis medications such as Actonel, Boniva, Calcimar, Evista, Fosamax, Reclast, Fortical, Miacalcin
- injectable Forteo or PTH to build bone
- calcium and vitamin D dietary supplements
- weight-bearing exercises (which force your muscles to work against gravity)
- smoking cessation
How can I prevent osteoporosis?
There are several proven ways to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures.
One out of every three women who lives to age 90 will break a hip because of osteoporosis. Men are also vulnerable. But there are many things you can do to prevent osteoporosis and avoid painful fractures. For instance, make sure you get plenty of calcium in your daily diet. You can get calcium from both foods and supplements. You can also check your osteoporosis risk factors and change those you can control. If you need them, your doctor can make recommendations about using osteoporosis medications.
Increase calcium in your diet. Getting enough calcium throughout your life helps to keep bones strong. Experts recommend 1,000 milligrams each day for premenopausal women and 1,500 milligrams a day for postmenopausal women.
Excellent sources of calcium include:
- milk and dairy products (low-fat versions are recommended)
- canned fish with bones, such as salmon and sardines
- dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale, collards, and broccoli
- calcium-fortified orange juice
- breads made with calcium-fortified flour
You can get the recommended amounts of calcium by having four servings of calcium-rich foods each day. Good choices might include:
- yogurt made with low-fat milk or whole milk
- a selected serving of cheese, tofu, or milk
- a selected serving of fish or broccoli
- calcium-fortified juices, breads, and cereals
- calcium-fortified dairy products
Supplement your diet. If you do not get enough dietary calcium, ask your doctor about calcium supplements. Take a 300-milligram calcium supplement to replace each serving of calcium-rich foods you miss each day. Calcium carbonate and calcium citrate are good forms of calcium supplements.
Get plenty of vitamin D. Vitamin D is vital for the body to absorb calcium. While being out in the sun 20 minutes each day helps your body get vitamin D, more research is showing that people may get too little of this vitamin, particularly in the wintertime. You can also get vitamin D from:
- fatty fish like salmon
- milk fortified with vitamin D
The Daily Value of vitamin D is 400 International Units (IU). Daily Values (DVs) are established by the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council as the amount necessary to prevent deficiencies. Still, these levels may not be enough to prevent chronic diseases such as osteoporosis and fractures.
Older adults should get at least 800 International Units (IU) daily of vitamin D. Although multivitamins are a convenient and inexpensive way to get vitamin D, many multivitamins contain only 400 IU. Read the label on your multivitamin to see what’s available in your supplement.
Exercise. Establish a regular exercise program. Exercise makes bones and muscles stronger and helps prevent bone loss. It also helps you stay active and mobile. Weight-bearing exercises are best for preventing osteoporosis. They should be done at least three to four times a week.
Walking, jogging, playing tennis or racket sports, and dancing are all good weight-bearing exercises. In addition, strength and balance exercises help build stronger muscles and may help you avoid falls. This will decrease your chances of breaking a bone.
Weight-bearing exercises stimulate the cells that make new bone. By increasing weight-bearing exercises, you encourage your body to form more bone. This can delay or even reverse the destructive process of osteoporosis that results in painful or debilitating fractures. By adding strength training to your exercise, you improve your muscle strength and flexibility and reduce the likelihood of falling.