Osteoporosis: What Is It and How to Improve Bone Health
Updated: May 19, 2022
Changing your diet and exercising are some ways to help improve your bone health.
Osteoporosis is a medical condition characterized by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue, which leads to an increased risk of bone fracture. The word comes from the Greek words “osteon” which means bone, and “poros” which means porous; hence, osteoporosis means porous bones. If you don't take care of your bones when you're young, they'll start to weaken when you're 30, 40, or 50. But with proper care, you can maintain healthy bones and reduce your risk of fractures.
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Osteoporosis vs. Osteopenia
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by a decrease in bone mass and slow deterioration of bone tissue. This leads to increased bone fragility and risk of fractures (broken bones), particularly in the hip, spine, and wrist. As bones become weaker, they are less able to support your body's weight. Osteoporosis can affect people of all races. However, white and Asian women — especially older women who are past menopause — are at the highest risk of the disease.
What is Osteopenia?
Osteopenia is a condition in which bone mineral density is lower than normal but not low enough to be defined as osteoporosis. The terms osteopenia and osteoporosis are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences between them. People diagnosed with osteopenia may later be diagnosed with osteoporosis if their bone mineral density worsens over time.
BruceBlaus, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Are there any symptoms of osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis can develop for years without symptoms. The disease often progresses without pain until a bone breaks. That's why doctors refer to osteoporosis as a "silent" disease. Fractures from mild trauma typically occur after age 50 and can be an early sign of weakening bones (osteopenia) or osteoporosis.
What are the risk factors?
Since osteoporosis develops without symptoms, it's important to be aware of the factors that can put you at risk. The following are some of the most common risk factors for osteoporosis:
Race. Asian women older than 50 years are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis.
Age. Our bones lose density as we get older. This process begins around age 30. Women experience more rapid bone loss after menopause due to a decrease in estrogen levels.
Sex. Women have smaller, thinner bones than men do. They also lose bone mass at a faster rate as they age, which increases their risk of developing osteoporosis.
Family history. A family history of osteoporosis or fractures (especially hip fractures) can raise your risk for the disease.
Weight or body build. A diet that does not contain enough calcium, along with limited physical activity, may result in weak bones during childhood and adolescence and cause osteoporosis later in life. Being underweight or having a small frame also increases your risk for osteoporosis because you have less bone tissue to lose as you age.
Low estrogen in women and low testosterone levels in men. Estrogen helps protect premenopausal women from osteoporosis by preventing bone loss at a faster rate than bone is formed. After menopause, when estrogen levels drop sharply, bone loss increases significantly. The most rapid bone loss occurs during the first few years after menopause. Testosterone helps protect men against osteoporosis by preventing bone loss at a faster rate than bone is formed. Therefore, men with low testosterone levels have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
Medications. Certain medications may increase your risk of osteoporosis by affecting the amount of calcium absorbed by your intestines or reducing hormones that are important for bone formation and strength. For example, steroids, medications for seizures, medications for heartburn, etc.
Other diseases or medical conditions. Because of the relationship with calcium/Vitamin D, or because of problems with absorption of nutrients, some diseases can also put you at risk of developing osteoporosis. For example, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, etc.
Lifestyle habits. Smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of physical activity, and a diet low in calcium and Vitamin D put you at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis.
Gastrointestinal surgery. People that undergo gastrointestinal surgery will have less area for the absorption of nutrients, in addition to other problems that contribute to having less available soluble calcium to be absorbed and transported to the bones.
What to do to prevent osteoporosis?
Take action! There’s no need to resign yourself to osteoporosis. Here are some simple things you can do:
Eat more calcium-rich foods. Dairy foods are the richest source of calcium in our diets, but dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and turnip greens, are also excellent sources. Calcium is better absorbed when it comes from food rather than from supplements. However, not everybody eats calcium-riched foods every day. Therefore, to make sure that you have your daily recommended intake of calcium, if you are a woman older than 50 or a man older than 70, you should take 1,200 mg of calcium daily. For those younger than 50, the recommendation is 1000 mg daily.
Take Vitamin D. It helps the body absorb calcium. If you are deficient in vitamin D, you may need a supplement to help your body maximize the calcium you get from food and supplements. The recommended daily intake is 600 IU (international units) or 800 IU if you are older than 80.
Exercise regularly. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging, stair climbing, dancing, or weightlifting strengthen bones by helping them keep calcium and other minerals. Exercise also builds muscle strength, which can help prevent falls that might cause fractures.
Don’t smoke. Smoking is a bad idea for so many reasons, but talking about bones, it contributes to poor bone health by speeding up bone loss. And smoking impairs the body's ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D, both essential nutrients for bone health.
Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol interferes with the absorption of nutrients by the cells that build up bones. It also interferes with hormones like estrogen and growth hormone which are important for proper bone function.
In conclusion, osteoporosis is a condition that can affect anyone who takes little to no precautions toward preserving their bone health. While it is typically associated with the elderly, it can also happen to people of all ages. There are several things you can do to help strengthen your bones and prevent yourself from developing weak bones as you age. If you aren't taking any action to improve your bone health, now is a good time to start. This can be done through exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, and a healthy lifestyle.
And as always, follow a healthy lifestyle and come back for the next topic.
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