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Osteopenia & Osteoporosis: How to protect your bones

Osteoporosis is a severe weakening of the bones and is one of the most widespread public health issues in America.  This can lead to fractures of the hip, spine, and other skeletal sites.

Osteopenia is a less severe condition and is a precursor to osteoporosis.  These conditions are diagnosed by getting a bone mineral density test (DEXA scan).

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, half of all Americans over age 50 are expected to have low bone density or osteoporosis by the year 2020.  Osteoporosis is the primary cause of 1.5 million fractures each year (source).

Generally there aren’t any symptoms in the early stages of bone loss.  Although, once your bones have weakened from osteoporosis, signs and symptoms may develop which are:  loss of height over time, back pain, stooped posture, bone fractures that happen easily.

Our bones are living tissue made mostly of calcium phosphate and collagen.  Bone is continually going through bone remodeling.  This is when old bone is removed (resorption) and new bone is added (formation).  During childhood and early growth years, bone is added faster than old bone is resorbed.  Peak bone mass is reached around 30 years of age and then bone resorption surpasses bone formation.

Risk Factors

Anyone can develop osteoporosis, but there are some risk factors that cannot be controlled.  These include:

  • being a woman
  • age (the older you get, the greater the risk)
  • race (white or Asian descent are at greater risk)
  • family history (if your parents or sibling have it, your risk is higher)
  • body frame size (small body frames are at greater risk because they have less bone mass to draw from as they age)

Some other risk factors include:

  • Hormones.  A decrease in sex hormones tend to weaken bone.  For example, lowered estrogen levels in women at menopause and treatments for prostate cancer that lowers testosterone or breast cancer treatments that lowers estrogen can increase bone loss.
  • Steroids.  Long term use of steroids, such as prednisone or cortisone, restricts the bone-rebuilding process.
  • Having certain medical conditions. These include celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney or liver disease, cancer, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Lifestyle choices.  People who are sedentary and spend a bunch of time sitting have a higher risk than active people.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Low calcium intake.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Gastrointestinal surgery.  The surface area to absorb nutrients is decreased when surgery is performed to reduce stomach size.

It’s most likely we’ll never get back to our peak bone density as when we were younger, but we can slow down the speed of bone resorption.  Taking special consideration to lifestyle and nutrition factors is crucial.

5 Tips for Better Bone Health

Good Nutrition.  Not only is it essential to get enough calcium and vitamin D, but an overall balanced and healthy diet is just as important.  Making sure to get enough calories and nutrients for your body.  Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C, K, and A which all play a part in bone health.  Recent evidence suggests that vitamin K and vitamin C may have a role in bone health and help decrease the risk of fracture (source).

Overall Healthy Lifestyle.  Smoking, eating disorders, and depression can be a factor in weakening of bones and developing osteoporosis.  Avoiding excess alcohol is also important as having more than two drinks a day may decrease bone formation.  Maintaining proper body weight is good for bones and overall health.

Take Part in Weight-Bearing Physical Activity.   Exercise is very important in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.  Exercise during childhood leads to a higher peak bone mass and exercise in the later years slows the decrease in bone mineral density.  Exercise also increases strength and muscle mass and allows for improved quality of life.  Also, elderly people who perform regular physical activity are less likely to fall.  Jogging, hopping, skipping, jumping, and other plyometric exercises are recommended weight-bearing exercises.  Resistance training is also important to strengthen bones.  When strength is improved the risk of falling is reduced.

Prevent Falls.  Brittle bones will probably not break without falling.  Working on balance, strengthening muscles, removing hazards at home like rugs and clutter will reduce the chances of falling.

Have Regular Check-ups.  See your doctor on a regular basis, especially if you have risk factors for osteoporosis.  Your physician can order a DEXA scan to rule out or confirm if osteopenia or osteoporosis is present.

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Some other points to keep in mind with regards to calcium are:  drinking alcohol with meals slows calcium absorption; caffeine can slightly increase calcium loss during urination; too much salt can increase the amount of calcium excreted during urination; too much phosphorus (an additive in many processed foods) can interfere with how much calcium is absorbed through your small intestine (Mayo Clinic).

Good nutrition and exercise are key in managing and preventing osteoporosis.  If you do have any risk factors, keep your doctor informed and maintain regular check-ups.  The health of our bones is vital to our overall health and quality of life!

Have you ever had a DEXA scan?

Do you take a calcium or vitamin D supplement?