Bones serve many functions – they provide structure for the body, protect organs, anchor muscles and store calcium. Did you know that humans have 206 bones that support the body’s total weight? That’s why it’s important to build strong bones when you are young and to protect bone health when you are an adult. Because around age 30, most people reach their peak bone mass. After that, everyone loses bone mass.
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that can result in weak bones and fractures (breaks). In fact, the most common cause of bone fractures is osteoporosis. There are several factors that contribute to this condition and some are related to the aging process, because as we age, our bodies can’t build new bones as quickly. However, women under 50 can also be at risk for developing this disease.
How likely you are to develop osteoporosis depends on how much bone mass you’ve built up by age 30 and how rapidly you lose it after then. The more bone mass you’ve built up by age 30, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you get older.
Osteopenia is when bones have a low bone-density mass, usually as a result of new bone formation that is not keeping up with the rate of bone loss. While it is not as severe as osteoporosis, there is a risk for bone fractures, as with osteoporosis. Osteopenia can occur in women of all ages and has similar risk factors. As with osteoporosis, there are no symptoms -- until a bone breaks and sometimes, not even then. If not corrected, osteopenia can lead to premature osteoporosis.
If you have risk factors for osteoporosis – such as a recent bone fracture – and are concerned about your bone health, you should make an appointment with your doctor. He or she might recommend a bone density test. Bone density is a measurement of how thick and strong bones are. A bone density test is recommended for:
women 65 or older or
women younger than 65 years old who are at risk for fractures equal to or greater than that of a 65-year-old woman who has no additional risk factors
The results of your bone density test can help your doctor determine your rate of bone loss; considered along with your risk factors, this can lead your doctor to prescribe medication to slow the bone loss.
Now that you know what may put you at risk for osteoporosis, you can start a plan to keep your bones strong or work on building them up to slow the natural bone loss.
Exercise. Try a weight-bearing exercise -- like walking, dancing or tennis -- for 30 minutes, three to four times a week. For a bonus, add some balancing exercises, such as tai chi, which can give you stability to help prevent falls.
Get enough calcium. You can get plenty of calcium in the foods you eat, like dairy products, fortified juices and certain vegetables such as kale.
Take in enough Vitamin D. The sun is the best source. Just 10 to 15 minutes a day on your hands, arms and face 2 to 3 times a week is what you need to make enough Vitamin D.
You are at higher risk of having osteoporosis if you:
Have a family history of osteoporosis
Are white, Asian, African American or Latina
Have a small, thin body or are underweight
Are missing your periods when you should still be getting them
Have gone through or are going through menopause or premature menopause
Have an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, among others
Don’t get enough exercise
Have been on certain long-term medicines, such as some cancer drugs, antacids with aluminum, and others that treat asthma or lupus
Use tobacco. Women who smoke are likely to have decreased bone density after menopause and are at higher risk for hip fractures.
Drink more than one alcohol drink per day
It’s always a good idea to have a discussion with your doctor about whether you should be tested for bone loss with a bone density test. If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, your doctor will offer suggestions about medications that can protect or build bone, which may include dietary supplements.