Literally translated as porous bone, osteoporosis reduces bone strength and significantly increases your risk of fractures and broken bones. Doctors frequently refer to osteoporosis as the silent disease, because there are rarely symptoms until there’s a fracture or a collapsed vertebra. In this post, we discuss the risk factors and diagnosis of osteoporosis, as well as how to prevent the disease.
What Is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a bone disease. It occurs when bones become weak due to lack of bone mass. Typically, the condition develops as a combination of not building enough bone mass during childhood and early adulthood, and losing too much bone with age.
The tissue structure in healthy bones includes tiny spaces that resemble a honeycomb. The bones of a person with osteoporosis have much larger spaces, meaning they’re less dense. This makes the bone weaker and more likely to break.
More than 53 million Americans have either osteoporosis or reduced bone mass, which increases their risk of developing the disease.
What Are the Risk Factors for Osteoporosis?
As with most diseases, there are two types of risk factors for osteoporosis: those you can change and those you cannot.
Risk factors you have no control over include:
- Age: Risk increases with age, due to accumulated bone loss
- Being female: Women are almost twice as likely to develop osteoporosis
- Body type: Risk is greater for smaller women with thin bones, but also for tall women
- Ethnicity: Caucasian women have the highest risk, although osteoporosis strikes all ethnicities
- Family history: If your parents had osteoporosis or a history of bone fractures, it increases your risk
Controllable risk factors include:
- Diet: A calcium-deficient diet as well as eating too few calories increases your risk
- Excess alcohol: Prolonged, heavy drinking is a controllable risk factor
- Inactivity: Whether due to an inactive lifestyle or prolonged bed rest, lack of activity increases bone loss
- Low sex hormones: Reduced estrogen levels (women) and testosterone levels (men) increase risk and may be treated with supplements
- Medical conditions: Certain conditions, such as late onset puberty and anorexia, increase your risk
- Medications: Some medications may increase risk, particularly glucocorticoids, drugs that suppress the immune system, and anticonvulsants
- Smoking tobacco: Researchers aren’t sure why, but smoking seems to increase risk
If your doctor suspects you may have osteoporosis – or are at heightened risk of it – he or she will start with a physical exam. The doctor checks for indicators such as height loss and changes to balance, posture, and gait.
Next is your medical history, which helps your doctor determine risk factors, particularly if you have a history of fractures. Your doctor may also order lab work to test urine and blood for vitamin and hormonal deficiencies. Also, x-rays to check your spine for malformations or fractures.
If these tests indicate you’re at risk for osteoporosis, your doctor will likely recommend a bone density test. Medicare covers a yearly bone mass measurement at 100 percent, assuming you meet eligibility requirements and your doctor accepts assignment. To be eligible, one of the following must apply:
- You’re a woman whose doctor diagnoses you with estrogen deficiency and increased risk for osteoporosis
- X-rays show the possibility of osteoporosis, osteopenia, or vertebral fractures
- You either take or are preparing to take prednisone or another steroid-type medication
- You’ve been diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism
- Your doctor is monitoring you to see whether you’re responding to your osteoporosis drug therapy
If you are a woman over age 65, you should talk to your doctor about osteoporosis.
Treatment typically includes lifestyle changes around nutrition and exercise. In addition, your doctor will talk to you about preventing falls and may start you on drug therapy.
How Can You Prevent Osteoporosis?
Unfortunately, one of the most impactful ways to prevent osteoporosis is to maximize bone mass. The most critical period in which to do this is during adolescence.
Through your mid-20s, your body builds bone mass. Weight-bearing exercise and diet are the main contributors. The main nutrients your bones need to reach peak bone mass are calcium and vitamin D. Few American adolescents get enough of either, unfortunately. What’s more, they’ve become far less active as well.
Adolescence is long gone for most of us. But you can minimize bone loss, even after age 65. Start with a healthy diet that includes plenty of calcium-rich foods (see the next section for recommendations). Don’t forget plenty of exercise, including strength-training at least two or three times per week. That doesn’t have to mean weightlifting, although it’s great if you enjoy it. Weight-bearing exercises also count, and include any activity during which your legs support your weight – jogging, dancing, gardening, walking, and more. It does not include activities like swimming and bicycling, but those are still great options for increasing your activity levels.
Finally, if you drink heavily, cut back. If you smoke, stop.
Calcium-Rich Foods to Prevent Osteoporosis
Doctors recommend 1,200 mg per day of calcium for women, and 1,000 mg per day for men. The National Osteoporosis Foundation offers a list of calcium-rich foods. The most powerful options include:
- Collard greens
- Greek yogurt
A serving of each of these contains between 200 mg and 300 mg of calcium.
You can also find foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight.
Foods to Avoid
As vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, some foods inhibit absorption. These include:
- Meat and high protein foods
- Oxalates such as spinach, beet greens, and rhubarb
- Wheat bran
Avoid consuming these within two hours of eating calcium-rich foods or taking a supplement.
In addition to a yearly bone density test, Medicare covers drug therapy, including injections given by a home health nurse. If you have questions about your Medicare coverage, call us toll-free at 855-350-8101. One of our licensed agents can assist you.