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Boning Up on Osteoporosis: Do Your Bones Measure Up?

January 06, 2016

It may be hard to believe, but it’s possible to die as a result of a bone fracture.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) estimates that a total of 54 million U.S. adults age 50 and older are affected by osteoporosis (a weakening of the bones) and low bone mass.  

This is a cause for concern, says Baystate endocrinologist Dr. Mary Pat Roy, because this can result in an increased number of bone fractures, which have serious consequences.  

“There are over two million fractures every year due to osteoporosis,” she says. “That’s one fracture every 15 seconds.” Of those, she says about 300,000 per year are broken hips. And of those:

  • 25% never leave the nursing home
  • 50% never regain previous function
  • 23% die within a year of breaking their hip  

But there is good news, according to Roy: osteoporosis can be prevented and treated.  

Menopause and Other Risk Factors

The majority of people with osteoporosis are women, with an estimated 8.2 million women and 2.0 million men with osteoporosis, and an additional 27.3 million women and 16.1 million men with low bone mass, sometimes referred to as osteopenia.  

The main reason women are most affected by osteoporosis is menopause. “Thanks to dropping estrogen levels, you can lose up to 15-20% of your bone density within five to seven years after your last period,” says Roy. “That’s why it’s especially important for women to get enough calcium and vitamin D before menopause.”

While menopause is the most common cause, Roy says other risk factors include:

  • A family history of osteoporosis
  • Being of Caucasian or Asian descent
  • Having a thin, small build
  • Smoking
  • Use of steroids and some breast cancer medications
  • Drinking excess alcohol
  • High consumption of cola sodas (due to phosphorus and salt)
  • Lack of exercise (weight bearing exercises boost bone mass)
  • A diet that’s high in sodium (which leaches calcium from bones)
  • A diet low in calcium
  • Lack of vitamin D (often due to lack of sunlight)
  • A history of eating disorders  

Prevention & Treatment: 4 Steps

Roy says there are four key steps to help slow down or prevent osteoporosis.

  1. Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D. Women should aim for 1200 mg of calcium per day (combined from supplements and diet) and 1000-2000 units of vitamin D.
  2. Perform weight-bearing exercises regularly. Just 30 minutes a day, even if broken up into three 10 minute increments, helps.
  3. Live a healthy lifestyle. Beyond a balanced, healthy diet and exercise, don’t smoke and limit alcohol and cola intake.
  4. Ask your health care provider about bone density testing and medication if appropriate.  

Roy believes that all women should take calcium supplements if there is not enough calcium in their healthy, balanced diet. Vitamin D is essential as well to ensure the calcium is absorbed by our bodies. “In our region,” she says, “we should also all take vitamin D, especially from November through March when we are less likely to get what we need from the sun.”

If you already have osteoporosis, Roy says that help is available. “Treatment focuses on preventing fractures, improving bone density, reducing pain, and improving movement,” she says.  

While there is no cure for osteoporosis, medications can help slow or stop bone loss or even rebuild bone. “Talk to your health care provider about your options,” says Roy. They may refer you to an endocrinologist for more specialized care.”  

Calculate Your Calcium

Are you getting enough calcium? Use this online calculator from the International Osteoporosis Foundation to see how you measure up: