Osteoporosis: A Silent and Too Common Disease

By Jacqi Kernaghan, PA-C

One out of every two women and one out of every four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis during their lifetime.

Those are pretty significant statistics. Most broken bones result from osteoporosis, a silent disease that causes bones to get thinner and more brittle as we age. About 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and over 42 million have low bone density (also known as osteopenia). Unfortunately, the first sign of osteoporosis may present itself when you break a bone (also known as a fracture) or when you notice that you’re getting shorter. Experiencing a fracture can deeply impact a person’s life. Some never regain their former quality of life after breaking a bone.

shutterstock_3538646Going through menopause is the number-one risk factor for osteoporosis. Estrogen hormones are protective against bone loss, so the rate of bone loss after menopause is very high. Many people think that osteoporosis only occurs in women, but it is very common for elderly men to experience it as well.

So what can you do to determine the strength of your bones? A DEXA scan is the best way to evaluate your bone mineral density and estimate your chance of having a fracture. A DEXA scan looks at the bone density of your hip and spine and reflects on the strength of your bones. All women over the age of 65 and all men over the age of 70 should be evaluated for osteoporosis by getting this simple X-ray. There are many reasons to have a DEXA scan done earlier (women over the age of 60 and men over the age of 65 with risk factors), and you should discuss your risks with your primary care provider, gynecologist or midwife. Fortunately, there are a number of great treatment options to improve bone density that your healthcare provider can discuss with you.

The good news is that osteoporosis is treatable. There are many things you can do to help prevent osteoporosis or keep it from getting worse. First, a diet high in calcium and vitamin D, such as dairy products, fruits and vegetables, can be a simple way to protect your bones. All adults over the age of 50 should take 800-1000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day. Men between the ages of 50 and 70 should take 1000 mg of calcium per day; women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 71 should take 1200 mg of calcium per day. The average adult over the age of 50 eats foods that contain 600-700 mg of calcium, so most people should take a calcium supplement (500-600 mg of calcium) which is available without a prescription. Some multivitamins also contain calcium, so check the label on the package.

shutterstock_17636911Weight-bearing aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises, such as lifting light weights, are important to strengthen your bones and reduce chances of falling and breaking a bone. Ways to reduce falls in your home include putting up rails in your bathroom and shower, removing loose throw rugs on the floor, keeping all areas of the home well lit, removing obstacles in walking paths and reducing slippery conditions in and around your home. Avoiding medications that can cause drowsiness and improving your balance can also help to reduce falls. Quitting smoking and limiting your alcohol intake to less than two drinks per day are also very important factors in preventing osteoporosis.

Everyone thinks that a broken bone won’t happen to them but unfortunately a woman’s risk of fracturing a hip due to osteoporosis is equal to her risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined. And a man over the age of 50 is more likely to break a bone due to osteoporosis than he is to get prostate cancer.

So make sure you do as much as you can to prevent osteoporosis and ask your primary care provider to order a DEXA scan to find out the strength of your bones today! And if you’ve already had a fragility fracture, there are excellent treatment options to prevent further fractures.

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