Osteoporosis – the gradually thinning of the bones – always has been considered an older person’s concern, but the progression of this silent disease can start decades earlier.
About 54 million Americans have osteoporosis. Most people don’t know it until they break or bone or have a bone density test.
Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis than men because they generally have lower bone density than men. During menopause, they lose estrogen, which is important for bone health. But that doesn’t men can’t develop osteoporosis, too.
Because most people reach their peak bone mass around age 30, it is crucial to protect bone health from an early age, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Bone remodeling – the process in which natural bone tissue is removed and new bone tissue is formed – continues throughout one’s life. But people lose slightly more than they gain. The higher a person’s bone mass is by age 30, the less likely she is to develop osteoporosis as she ages.
Under a microscope, a healthy bone looks like a honeycomb. For people with osteoporosis, the spaces in the honeycomb are much larger than they are in people with healthy bones. As bones becomes less dense, they weaken and become more likely to break.
People living with osteoporosis are at increased risk for dangerous fractures of the spine, hip and other bones that can limit their mobility and lead to permanent pain. Osteoporosis also can lead to a hunched posture.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 20% of seniors who break a hip die within a year from complications from the broken bone or the surgery to repair it. Many patients also will require long-term nursing care.
There are lifestyle changes people can make to improve their bone health and reduce their risk for osteoporosis. Here are some tips compiled by experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Mayo Clinic, HCA Midwest Health and the Cleveland Clinic:
1. Consume enough calcium. Nutrition guidelines recommend 1,000 mg per day for women ages 50 and younger and 1,200 mg for women ages 51 and older. For men, the guidelines recommend 1,000 mg until age 71. Then they should get 1,200 mg per day. Green and yellow vegetables are good sources of calcium.
2. Get enough vitamin D. This helps the body absorb calcium and uses it strengthen the bones. People can get vitamin D from sunlight and various foods including salmon, trout, tuna, mushrooms, eggs and fortified cereals and milk. But supplements may be needed to reach the recommended levels. People age 70 and younger are advised to get 600 international units per day; older adults should get 800 international units.
3. Eat enough protein. It increases bone mineral density. People are advised to consume 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. So, a 140-pound woman should be eating about 60 grams of protein a day. A 170-pound man should be eating about 70 grams.
4. Complete weight-bearing and resistance exercises. People do these exercises at least 3 to 4 times a week. Weight-bearing exercises include running, dancing and aerobics. Resistance exercises refer to the use of weights, elastic bands and water to create an opposing force.
5. Reduce alcohol consumption and avoid drugs.
6. Quit smoking.
7. Maintain a healthy weight. Because the body’s joints are weight-bearing, a healthy weight reduces extra strain on the knees, hips and spine.
Besides lifestyle factors such as exercise and diet, and advancing age, there are other risk factors for developing osteoporosis. White and Asian people are at higher risk. So are people with a family history of fractures.
Menopause, thyroid conditions and eating disorders also can cause bone loss. So can certain medications such as long-term steroid use and certain cancer and anti-seizure medicines.
People who are concerned about their bone health or at high risk for osteoporosis are advised talk to a doctor about scheduling a bone density test. There are medications available that can reduce fracture risk for people diagnosed with osteoporosis.