- Osteoporosis -
the time for prevention is now
By: Jim Rogers, M.D.
Osteoporosis used to be thought of as a condition affecting solely older women. This is no longer the case. While it’s true that full-blown osteoporosis is more prevalent among women over age 50, twenty percent of all cases occur in men. And osteoporosis isn’t just a disease of the elderly. The bone loss caused by osteoporosis often happens for years and years before any symptoms are felt. People may not know they have osteoporosis until their bones become so weak that a sudden strain, bump or fall causes a fracture. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates that osteoporosis causes over one million fractures each year.
Much can be done to strengthen bones and decrease risk factors for osteoporosis long before the retirement years. For this reason, osteoporosis is a concern for just about everyone -- no matter his or her age or gender.
When is the most critical time for building strong bones? Childhood. Building strong bones during childhood and adolescence can be the best defense for preventing osteoporosis later in life. Most of us are beyond adolescence, however, and the good news is there are a number of things that most adults can to do to maintain the strength and mass of their bones.
Our bones are continually regenerating. This regeneration helps maintain a constant level of calcium in the blood, which is essential for a healthy heart as well as adequate blood circulation and clotting. When the calcium level in our blood drops below a certain level, the body “borrows” calcium from the bones. If we take in enough calcium and other necessary bone-building nutrients, the nutrients borrowed from our bones will be replenished. If we don’t, our bones lose mass and become weaker.
Osteoporosis literally means “porous bone.” If our body loses more of certain minerals -- such as calcium and phosphorus -- than it takes in, bones gradually become less dense and weaker. During childhood, adolescence and even early adulthood, we can build bone mass by taking in more calcium and other nutrients than our body uses. By the time we reach our late thirties, however, we begin to lose more bone than we make, causing an overall bone loss. In addition, as we age, the body is less able to absorb calcium from food.
Getting older is one unavoidable risk factor for osteoporosis. There are others as well. One is being female. This is due, in large part, to the fact that men typically have a greater bone mass than women. The loss of estrogen, which occurs during menopause, also increases bone loss and is another risk factor. Family history and genetics are other factors.
While the risk factors listed above can’t be avoided, there are a number of lifestyle choices that can help contribute to strong bones. A regular exercise program, which includes weight-bearing exercises, is helpful. Walking, running, biking, aerobics and cross-country skiing all provide a healthy workout for your bones and encourage an increase of bone mass. Diet is important as well. Eating foods that are rich in calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus help bones get the nutrients they need. Avoid unhealthy habits. Don’t smoke and limit your alcohol intake, as both can increase your risk for osteoporosis.
Even if you follow all the rules, and live a healthy lifestyle, you still may wonder about the condition of your bones. It used to be that diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis came after a fracture. This is no longer the case. Diagnosis and treatment need no longer wait until bones break.
Specialized tests called bone density tests are available for the diagnosis of osteoporosis. Bone density tests use either ultrasound or dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) to measure bone density in various areas of the body. These tests can detect osteoporosis before a painful fracture occurs. They can also help predict your chances of sustaining a fracture in the future, aid in determining your rate of bone loss and help to monitor effects once treatment has begun.
DEXA examinations are comfortable, fast and safe. Patients typically spend only minutes reclining fully-clothed on the densitometer. Radiation exposure is very low (about five percent of the dosage received in a normal chest x-ray.) The operator is with the patient at all times, and results are available quickly. Bone density testing makes early detection of osteoporosis easy and painless, and early detection can lead to effective treatment.
After a diagnosis is made, there are a number of treatment options available for people with osteoporosis. Of course, a healthy diet, vitamin supplements, exercise program and other healthy lifestyle choices become even more important after you are diagnosed with osteoporosis. Other treatment options may include hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and/or prescription medications, which help the body slow overall bone loss. As with any medication, there may be risks and possible side effects related with HRT and the prescriptions used to treat osteoporosis. You want to be sure to discuss these with your physician before deciding on a course of action.
Osteoporosis has been described as a geriatric disease with an adolescent onset. This illustrates the importance of taking steps early on to prevent and reduce the disabling impact that osteoporosis can have later in life. And, while there is still no cure, increasing bone mass and strength through proper diet and nutrition, weight-bearing exercises and a healthy lifestyle choices can certainly help greatly in delaying or diminishing osteoporosis and its effects on your life.
Dr. Rogers is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.