Avoid the break: How finding out about osteoporosis now can help you later

Did you know that many older people with osteoporosis don’t know they have it until they have broken a bone? However, osteoporosis is a very common condition for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects about 1 in 4 women aged 65 and older and 1 in 20 men aged 65 and older. Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones and makes them more susceptible to breaks. As people age, recovering from a broken bone becomes more difficult and can leave lasting effects such as chronic pain. That’s why it’s important to learn about osteoporosis and how to protect yourself against its effects.

Bone is living tissue. To keep bones strong, our body breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone tissue. Sometime around age 30, bone mass stops increasing and the goal for bone health shifts to keeping as much bone as possible for as long as you can. As people enter their 40s and 50s, more bone may be broken down than is replaced. For example, osteoporosis can cause the bones in the spine to break and begin to collapse, so that some people with it get shorter and are not able to stand up straight.

According to the National Institute on Aging, osteoporosis is more common in women than men. At the time of menopause, women may lose bone quickly for several years. After that, the loss slows down but continues. In men, the loss of bone mass is slower. But, by age 65 or 70, men and women lose bone at the same rate.

Risk factors for osteoporosis

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, certain risk factors can cause bone loss and osteoporosis. Some of these things you cannot change and others you can. Risk factors for osteoporosis include:

  • Alcohol. Too much alcohol can cause bone loss and broken bones.
  • Body weight. Being too thin or having a small body frame makes you more likely to get osteoporosis.
  • Diet. Getting too little calcium and vitamin D can increase your chances of getting osteoporosis.
  • Ethnicity. White and Asian women are more likely to get osteoporosis. African American and Hispanic women have a lower chance of getting the disease.
  • Family history. Osteoporosis tends to run in families. If a family member has osteoporosis or breaks a bone, there is a greater chance that you will too.
  • Hormones. Low estrogen levels due to missing menstrual periods or menopause can cause osteoporosis in women. Low testosterone levels can bring on osteoporosis in men.
  • Injury. Breaking a bone after age 50 increases risk of osteoporosis.
  • Medicines: Certain medicines, including those for arthritis, asthma and cancer, can cause bone loss.
  • Physical activity. Not exercising and not being active for long periods of time can increase your chances of getting osteoporosis. Like muscles, bones become stronger and stay stronger with regular exercise.
  • Smoking. Cigarettes can keep your body from using the calcium in your diet. Also, women who smoke go through menopause earlier than those who don’t smoke.
  • Surgery. Women who had surgery to remove their ovaries before their periods stopped have an increased risk of bone loss.

Getting tested

In addition to knowing your risk for osteoporosis, getting your bone density tested is an important step in reducing your chances for a break. A bone mineral density test compares your bone density to the bones of an average healthy young adult. The test result, known as a T-score, tells you how strong your bones are, whether you have osteoporosis or low bone mass and your risk for having a fracture. A bone density test is like an x-ray or scan of your body. A bone density test doesn’t hurt, and you don’t need to do anything to prepare for it. It only takes about 15 minutes.

What can you do?

Whether you have osteoporosis or not, you can still slow down bone loss. If you have osteoporosis, knowing about and treating it early can keep you healthier and more active, lowering your chances of breaking a bone. Depending on the results of your bone density test, you may need to:

  • Add more calcium and vitamin D to your diet
  • Exercise more to strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Limit alcohol use
  • Stop smoking
  • Take medicine to stop bone loss
  • Take steps to reduce the risk of falls

If you concerned about bone loss, consult your healthcare provider about possible testing and interventions.