Healthy Bones…Healthy Body

By Mary Lizabeth Aquavia, Medical Director, Women’s Health Program

Our bones may feel hard and virtually indestructible to us. In reality, bones are living tissue that is constantly being built and replaced.

As we get older, this cycle of bone build-up and destruction can get out of balance. Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone fails to keep up with the loss of old bone. The disease causes the bones to grow thinner and more brittle, which can result in potentially life-threatening fractures, loss of mobility, pain and suffering.

May is National Osteoporosis Month and the perfect time to consider your risk factors for osteoporosis, as well as how to treat – and even prevent –  the disease.

The key to ensuring good bone health as you age is to take proactive steps to help keep your bones in top condition. This starts with knowing your risk factors for osteoporosis and then making lifestyle, dietary and other changes to optimize your chances of aging safely and gracefully...with healthy bones!

Know Your Risk Factors for Osteoporosis

Age is the most significant risk factor for osteoporosis, and women as they get older are much more likely to develop the disease than men. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, one in two women over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, compared to up to one in four men.

For women, the onset of menopause is a strong risk factor for osteoporosis. (Menopause, on average, starts around age 50 but can begin anywhere from 45 to 55.) The reduction of the hormone estrogen in women at menopause tends to weaken the bones. The resulting decrease in bone density is most prevalent in the first seven years of menopause but usually plateaus after that. Women typically are given a bone density test after the first year of menopause to help determine their risk level.

Race is also a risk factor. If you are of white or Asian descent, you are more likely to develop osteoporosis. And having a family history of osteoporosis puts you at greater risk. Additionally, women – and men – with a smaller body frame tend to have higher risk because they have less bone mass to draw from as they age.

Some lifestyle choices can have a major impact on your bone health. For example, if you have a sedentary lifestyle, you’re at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Excess alcohol use can also increase your risk, as can tobacco use.

Diet is another determinant of risk for osteoporosis. You need calcium to make more bone so if the food you eat does not provide you with enough calcium, your bone growth will be reduced. Similarly, if you suffer from an eating disorder, are underweight or have undergone a gastrointestinal procedure such as bariatric surgery that reduces your stomach or intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients like calcium, your bones will be weakened.

Some medications put you at higher risk for osteoporosis. Long-term corticosteroid or prednisone-like medications can interfere with the bone-rebuilding process, as can drugs prescribed for seizures, gastric reflux disease, cancer, and transplant rejection.

People with certain medical conditions such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease that impact the body’s ability to absorb nutrients through the small intestine are more likely to develop osteoporosis. Other conditions, including kidney and liver diseases, cancer, lupus, multiple myeloma and rheumatoid arthritis, also increase risk of osteoporosis. Thyroid problems can lead to osteoporosis. Having an overactive thyroid gland results in more bone turnover, disrupting the balance between bone growth and bone destruction, and increasing the risk of osteoporosis.  The disease has also been associated with overactive parathyroid and adrenal glands.

Treating – and Preventing – Osteoporosis

So, why should we care if our bones get thinner as we age? Bone fractures when we grow older can lead to debilitating complications. For example, hip fractures in elderly people following a fall can result in increased disability, which, in turn, may lead to additional medical complications and greater risk of death within the first year after the fracture.

The good news is that, once you know your risk factors, there are many proactive steps you can take to treat and prevent osteoporosis.

Eating a diet rich in calcium and Vitamin D is a key step. Some of the foods that are a good source of these nutrients – and should definitely be in everyone’s diet – include yogurt, milk, cheese, cottage cheese, sardines, tofu, almonds, kale, broccoli and kidney beans. Many foods such as cereal and granola bars are fortified with added calcium and Vitamin D. People who don’t get the recommended amount of calcium and Vitamin D from food alone should take supplements to reach the required levels. For post-menopausal women, the recommendation is 1,200 milligrams per day of calcium and 1,000 international units per day of Vitamin D.

To ensure good bone health, women should also limit themselves to no more than two alcoholic drinks a day and avoid tobacco.

Maintaining a healthy weight is not just good for your bones, it’s also beneficial for your health in general. You should aim for a body mass index (BMI) of around 24 to 25. Anything below 20 indicates you are underweight and at increased risk of bone loss.

Exercise is also really important for building strong bones and slowing down bone loss. Weight-bearing exercise for 30 minutes a day, at least three to four times a week, is best. That doesn’t mean you have to become a weightlifter! Effective weight-bearing exercises include such things as walking, stair climbing, doing planks or any other activity in which you bear your own body weight. And exercises like tai chi will also help with your balance so you have less risk of falling and ending up with a fracture.

Some people require medication as a treatment for osteoporosis.  Typically, oral bisphosphonates are the first option physicians consider. They’ve been around for 30 to 40 years and have been shown to be effective and safe.  People who are unable to take the medication orally can receive it by injection. Patients with severe osteoporosis may be prescribed anabolic agents by a specialist.

Improvements in bone density don’t happen instantaneously, even if you take all steps suggested above. But they’re definitely worth it. You don’t want to let your bones deteriorate. Good bone health is essential for a long, productive life!