Osteoporosis, a medical condition in which the bones weaken over time, leading to mobility difficulties and even injury, is one of the most common health conditions facing older adults:
- 10 million Americans have osteoporosis.
- 44 million Americans age 50 or older have low bone density, increasing their risk of osteoporosis.
- 2 million broken bones are caused every year by osteoporosis.
- Half of all Americans age 50 or older are at risk of breaking a bone from low bone density or osteoporosis.
- Osteoporosis accounts for over $19 billion in medical costs every year.
A broken bone isn't always the temporary condition that a younger adult may view it as. Broken bones may not heal properly for older adults with osteoporosis, and these breaks often occur in crucial and intricate areas like the spine, hip, or wrist. The long-term effects of broken bones may include limited mobility, which can lead to less independence and a risk of depression, and complications from the broken bone or corrective surgery. These complications can even be fatal.
Causes and Risk Factors
Although bones seem fixed and unyielding to us, they're constantly being broken down and rebuilt. As we age, the rate at which new bone is produced decreases, and we start to lose more than we create. This process begins at a relatively young age -- many people reach their peak bone mass around age 30, and that peak mass affects your likelihood of developing osteoporosis.
This is only one of the risk factors, however. Some are attributed to lifestyle choice, and some are uncontrollable or the result of medical conditions or treatments. These latter risk factors include:
- Being older than 50.
- Being female.
- Menopause: lowered sex hormones increase osteoporosis risk.
- Race: those of Caucasian or Asian descent have an increased likelihood.
- Family history of osteoporosis.
- Body frame size: small body frames increase risk.
- Height loss.
- Hormone issues: overactive thyroid or adrenal glands.
- Broken bones.
- Medical conditions: including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, lupus, multiple myeloma, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney or liver disease.
- Certain medications: long-term corticosteroid use.
- Gastrointestinal surgery.
- Eating disorders.
Some risk factors for osteoporosis are more controllable:
- Low calcium intake.
- Low vitamin D intake.
- Poor diet: lack of fruits and vegetables.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
Treating and Preventing Osteoporosis
The best advice about preventing osteoporosis comes down to what you'd probably expect: a healthy lifestyle. A good diet and regular exercise may not guarantee immunity, but strengthening your bone tissue is still the best defense against osteoporosis.
Exercise helps strengthen your bones -- much like muscle, bone rebuilds and becomes stronger after exercise. Weight-bearing and resistance exercises are the best forms for this, but strength training is also valuable:
- Body weight exercises such as pushups and squats.
- Climbing stairs.
- Jogging, running, and walking.
- Lifting weights.
- Racket sports such as tennis.
- Resistance bands.
- Swimming and water aerobics.
- Tai Chi.
A healthy diet to strengthen your bones is largely built around calcium and vitamin D. The mineral calcium is essential to bone health as well as other bodily processes, and without it bones will break down to provide calcium to the rest of your body. Sources include:
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
- Leafy, dark green vegetables: kale and broccoli.
- Some fish: sardines and salmon.
- Calcium-fortified foods: cereal, soy milk, and tofu.
- Calcium supplements.
Vitamin D is also necessary, as it helps the body absorb calcium. It's not found in many foods, but your skin produces it when exposed to sunlight (be cautious of sun damage - you don't need to be outside long enough to burn in order to get your daily dose of Vitamin D). This is the easiest way to get Vitamin D, but there are other sources:
- Fatty fish: salmon, mackerel, and tuna.
- Beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
- Fortified foods: milk, cereal, and orange juice.
- Vitamin D supplements.
Aside from a healthy diet and exercise, here are some steps you can take to prevent osteoporosis:
- Don't smoke.
- Consume alcohol in moderation.
- Keep a healthy weight: being underweight could result in decreased bone mass, while being overweight can result in increased stress on bones.
Osteoporosis has no cure, but those with it may be prescribed a number of drugs or treatments to help strengthen bones, including:
- Bisphosphonates: medications that slow or prevent bone loss.
- Monoclonal antibody medications: drugs that prevent bone-asborbing osteoclast cells from forming.
- Bone-building medications.
- Hormone-related therapy.
Fall prevention is one of the most important facets of osteoporosis treatment. Broken bones from falls are a major cause of complications and even death from osteoporosis. Preventing falls is an article all its own (and conveniently you can find it right here!), but here are some basic tips: