Osteoporosis is a common bone disease in the United States. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, about 54 million Americans have osteoporosis and low bone mass. The condition occurs when the body makes too little bone or loses too much, leading to low bone density and weak, fragile, or brittle bones. There are no true signs or symptoms of early disease, which is why it is often referred to as a “silent” disease.
Osteoporosis usually does not become evident until a fracture has occurred. Left untreated, osteoporosis can lead to loss of height, back pain, stooped posture, and fractures. In some severe cases, simple actions such as bending or coughing can result in a break. Osteoporosis fractures can compromise quality of life and create other complications, such as hospitalization, immobility, and loss of independence.
While osteoporosis can have serious risks, the good news is that you can take steps to better understand your risk factors and reduce the risk of fractures.
Causes and Risk Factors
Osteoporosis affects both men and women, but it’s more common in women. About half of all women and a quarter of all men age 50 and up develop osteoporosis. There are numerous risk factors (some of which cannot be changed, and some that can be managed with lifestyle changes), including:
- Having small stature, low body weight, and small bones.
- A family history of osteoporosis.
- Having certain diseases or chronic conditions (e.g., autoimmune disorders, chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, early-onset menopause) or taking certain types of medication (e.g., long-term steroids, chemotherapy drugs, thyroid hormones).
- A lack of calcium and vitamin D.
- Being Caucasian or Asian.
- Being female.
- Having low bone density (also called osteopenia).
- Cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and/or lack of exercise.
Tests for Bone Health
Your health care provider can keep track of your bone health with a special scan—like an X-ray—called a bone density test. It’s a way of seeing how strong and dense your bones are.
A bone density test is a simple scan that takes a measurement of how dense and strong your bones are, and the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs. It is usually done using a central DXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) machine, which scans over the body and measures the density of the hip or spine. The test is non-invasive and painless; patients usually stay dressed and lie down during the scan. Bone density measures can help you and your doctor:
- Predict your chance of breaking a bone in the future.
- See if you had osteoporosis before you broke a bone.
- See if your bone density is improving, getting worse, or staying the same.
- Determine if your osteoporosis medicine is working.
Sometimes, DXA tests will indicate that bone density is low, but not low enough for an osteoporosis diagnosis. This condition of having low bone density is called osteopenia, and it means you have a greater risk of developing osteoporosis in the future. People with osteopenia may need to make lifestyle changes or get other treatments to prevent progression of the disease. See a doctor routinely for regular bone monitoring.
Treatment and Risk Reduction Go Hand-in-Hand
You can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and help treat it with healthy lifestyle choices and medication. Talk to your health care provider to determine your risk for weak bones or to develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Be sure to include these healthy lifestyle actions in your life:
- Exercise regularly to keep your bones strong. Exercise can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis—and it can also be an important part of a treatment plan. Both weight-bearing exercises (walking, jogging, dancing, aerobics) and muscle-strengthening exercises (weights, resistance bands, functional movements) can help strengthen your bones. If you have osteoporosis, always check with your health care provider before you start a new exercise routine.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. A food plan that includes a combination of calcium and vitamin D will aid in improving bone health. Examples of calcium-rich foods are yogurt, cheese, low-fat milk, dark leafy greens; and vitamin D can be found in fatty fish, egg yolks, and foods fortified with vitamin D (milk, juice, cereals).
- Limit alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol in excess may accelerate bone loss while caffeine may decrease the absorption of calcium, which also leads to bone loss.
- Quit smoking. Research has shown that smoking has a great impact on bone density in that it increases the chance of injury and slows recovery.
- Reduce fall risk. Slow down, stay alert, and make sure your house is a fall-safe home.
If you or someone you know is at risk for osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about creating a plan to keep your bones healthy. No matter how healthy you are, or how young, it’s never too soon to think about bone health.