The human body is remarkable. It’s constantly replacing dying cells with new cells in order to maintain function and keep you as healthy as possible. The living tissue inside your body keeps everything running smoothly, and your bone is no exception. As a living tissue, your bone can both increase and decrease in quality.
Osteoporosis occurs when there is an imbalance in breaking down bone to replace it with new bone: either losing too much bone, making too little bone, or both. The quality and/or quantity of the bone suffers and becomes brittle, weak, and at increased risk for fractures.
The good news is there are several things you can actively do to maintain the quality of your bone. By understanding how osteoporosis affects your body, what causes it, and things you can do to prevent it, you’ll be better able to take care of your health.
How Osteoporosis Affects Your Body
Osteoporosis is not something that should be taken lightly. It can actually increase your risk of spine, hip, and wrist fractures. If you have osteoporosis, you can more easily break a hip from a fall from standing height, or fracture your spine from a sneeze or cough—health issues not common for people with strong bone density.
The stage between normal bone and osteoporosis is called osteopenia, which can also put you at an increased risk of fractures. Hip fractures can cause an increased risk of death in people over the age of 50.
Osteoporosis is more common than you might think, and typically there are no symptoms of it other than possible height loss, bone pains, and fractures that occur more easily than expected.
You reach your maximum bone density in your early 20s. The more good-quality bone you achieve by this age, the better you are set up for the slow decline in bone that occurs with age. This decline increases around perimenopause/menopause and andropause, but certain medical conditions, medications, and lifestyle choices can harm your bone health as well.
Causes of Osteoporosis
Risk factors for osteoporosis include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Gastrointestinal surgery that affects how you absorb nutrients
- Eating disorders
- Women who didn’t have their periods for an extended amount of time during their reproductive years
- Low calcium intake
- Excessive alcohol consumption (more than two drinks per day)
- Low vitamin D levels
- Overactive parathyroid or adrenal glands
- Multiple myeloma
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Celiac disease
- Early menopause
- Family history of osteoporosis
- Caucasian or Asian race
- Female gender
- Certain medications (such as heparin, Coumadin, Dilantin, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, proton pump inhibitors, Depo-Provera, antiestrogen or anti-testosterone treatments for breast and prostate cancer, too much thyroid medication, steroids like prednisone)
How to Prevent Osteoporosis
Fortunately, osteoporosis can be diagnosed early, allowing you to proactively prevent further worsening of bone health and even reverse the disease.
Your bone density can be determined by a low-dose x-ray machine. To track progress, make sure to repeat future x-rays on the same model machine and by the same technician if possible.
If you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, your doctor will assess you to determine the cause and best course of treatment. Some treatments are as simple as increasing vitamin D and calcium intake, while others include pharmaceuticals that reduce bone loss or increase bone growth or both.
Here are some easy steps you can take to maximize your bone health and reduce your risk of fracture:
- Stop smoking
- Avoid consuming more than two servings of alcohol per day (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer)
- Avoid steroids (like prednisone)
- Increase your weight-bearing activity. This can be as simple as lifting weights or walking, hiking, or dancing between 30 and 60 minutes per day. Anything that is jarring to the bones (not too gentle or too harsh) will help stimulate them to become stronger. Elliptical machines and water exercise are too gentle to benefit the bones.
- Work on your balance. The less you fall, the less chance you’ll fracture something.
- Make sure you are consuming two to three servings of calcium-rich food per day. It is always best to get your nutrients from whole foods rather than supplements, when possible.
- Make sure your vitamin D level is at an optimal range. Normal is 30 to 100 and I recommend ~40.
- See your primary care doctor or endocrinologist to be screened for osteoporosis.
Remember, it’s never too late to take charge of your health. The earlier you address osteoporosis, the more likely you are to slow its progression and be able to live a fuller life.