What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is often referred to as the “silent disease” affects an estimated 44 million Americans, the majority of whom are over the age of 50.

While osteoporosis primarily affects women, men are still at risk for developing this degenerative bone disease. Characterized by low bone mass, bones become weak and fragile over time and start to fracture or break as a result of an injury or minor actions and movements.

Today, there are diagnostic tests as well as treatment options and preventive measures to reduce one’s risk for developing this condition.

Osteoporosis Symptoms

Unfortunately, we can’t look at or feel our bones to determine how healthy or strong they are so usually by the time we identify the signs and symptoms of osteoporosis, the disease has progressed to an advanced level. Often a person does not know that she has osteoporosis until a bone is fractured or broken.

But certain cues can reflect the condition. Such signs are poor posture usually in the form of a stooped or hunched back, a reduction in height, or strong back pain typically originating in the lumbar spine region.

The most common sites for fractures are the hips, wrists or spine but any bone in the body is vulnerable.

Osteoporosis Causes

Starting in your 20s, you begin to lose bone mass. It is estimated that your skeleton is replaced every 10 years due to the constant cycle of bone loss and regeneration. Osteoporosis is caused when bone loss exceeds new bone growth. Bones consequently become brittle, thin, porous and prone to fractures and breaks.

During adolescence, the size of the bones are constantly growing and getting larger and stronger. But at some point, usually between the ages of 18 and 25, you reach your peak bone density mass or BMD which essentially means that you have developed all of the bone mass that you will ever have for the rest of your life. From the point of BMD and on, you either maintain your bone density mass or you start to lose it.

Several factors contribute to bone maintenance and several factors contribute to its loss. Therefore, the stronger bones a person develops during their bone-growing years, the more resilience and strength they have for preventing the age-related decline of bone density mass. This is why it is so important for children, teenagers and young adults to eat a nutritious diet full of calcium-rich and mineral-rich foods and get in enough exercise to build strong bones.

There are numerous risk factors for osteoporosis, some of which can be prevented or modified and some of which cannot. Here is a look at the most common risk factors:

  • Age: The older a person gets, the more bone mass they lose making them more susceptible to the effects of osteoporosis.
  • Gender: Women more than men are at a greater risk particularly because they lose one-fifth of their bone mass during their menopausal years.
  • Body Structure: Having a slight, thin or small-boned frame increases one’s risk.
  • Diet: Not eating enough dietary calcium, the bone-strengthening mineral and Vitamin D are linked to osteoporosis. In addition, diets high in carbonated soda and protein may also increase risk as these foods can leach bone-strengthening nutrients from the body and cause bones to weaken and become more brittle.
  • Irregular Menstrual Cycles: Women who frequently miss periods have an increased risk for osteoporosis as are women who have a history of anorexia nervosa or very low body weight.
  • Low Hormone Levels: Women who experience low estrogen levels and men who experience low testosterone levels are at an increased risk for developing osteoporosis.
  • Lifestyle Behaviors: Smoking and alcohol consumption have been associated with increased risk as has leading a sedentary life, particularly lifestyles that don’t include any form of weight-bearing exercises.
  • Medical History: Certain medications add to one’s risk as does having a history of bone trauma, breakages and accidents. Osteoporosis is caused by a cluster of related factors that over time rather than just one specific risk factor. Over time, this accumulative effect weakens the bone and makes it more susceptible to fractures and breaks.

Osteoporosis Treatment

There is no cure for osteoporosis but the condition can be treated through certain medications which prevent additional bone loss and lifestyle changes.

Here the most common medications to treat osteoporosis:

Biophosphonates are the most common medications used to treat osteoporosis. This class of drugs works by slowing down the breakdown of bone and can actually maintain bone mass and prevent its further deterioration. Here is a list of the most common biophosphonate drugs including their brand names:

  • Alendronate (Fosamax)
  • Ibandronate (Boniva)
  • Risedronate (Actonel)
  • Zoledronic Acic (Reclast)

All biophosphonates are taken in a pill form but Boniva and Reclast can also be taken via an injection which is administered every three months in the case of Boniva and only once a year for Reclast.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for menopausal women can also help to prevent bone loss since the loss of bone is directly related to the loss of estrogen that characterizes this life stage in women. One such drug, raloxifene (Evista) is a specific hormone-like medication used to treat osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis Prevention

While bone loss is an inevitable component of the aging process, there are a series of actions and behaviors that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to reduce your chances of developing this disease.

Younger women should not wait until they reach their menopause years to start to take action to prevent osteoporosis. Instead, starting at age 30 or earlier, women should follow certain bone-preserving steps in order to reduce their risk of developing the disease later on life.

Here are four of the most important preventive measures for reducing osteoporosis risk:

  • Diet: Women under the age of 50 should consume a minimum of 1,000 mg of calcium each day. Since this is difficult to do through food alone, taking a quality daily supplement is necessary. In addition to calcium, at least 1,000 mg of Vitamin D is also needed to ensure the health of bones. Many calcium supplements are also combined with Vitamin D. You should look for a supplement that contains D3, a more readily absorbable form of this nutrient.
  • Exercise: In addition to getting in your regular 30 minutes of activity, engaging in weight-bearing exercises is a key factor in preventing osteoporosis. Some cardiovascular activities can also double as weight-bearing ones like stair-climbing and jogging or running. Strength-training workouts that use external weights can help to maintain bone mass as can certain forms of yoga that require the use of your body weight to provide support in postures. Regular exercise will also improve balance and coordination thereby reducing risk for accidental falls and slips that can cause a fracture or broken bones.
  • Not Smoking: Although the precise link between smoking and osteoporosis has not been identified, those who smoke have a much higher risk of developing the disease than those who don’t smoke.
  • Seek Proper Medical Care: It is important to receive a bone density test in order to determine if you have osteoporosis or if you at risk for the condition. Talk to your medical doctor about getting a test done and about taking the necessary preventive measures to reduce your osteoporosis risk.

Osteoporosis Resources

Since osteoporosis affects so many people, there are a variety of resources that provide informational as well as supportive services for those with or at risk for this disease. Reputable organizations like the National Osteoporosis Foundation can help provide specific information to your questions and concerns. In addition, your medical doctor can help customize a risk reduction plan for you. You can also work with a registered dietician to create a bone-strengthening diet and a personal trainer to develop a weight-bearing exercise routine to strengthen bones and reduce risk of fracture.

Here are a few major resources for people with Osteoporosis:

National Osteoporosis Foundation helps improve the lives of those affected by osteoporosis and to find a cure through programs of awareness, advocacy, public and health professional education and research.