Knowing your osteoporosis risk factors, how to prevent osteoporosis, and the signs and symptoms of osteoporosis can help you take action to keep your bones strong.
While everyone loses some bone density as we age, too much bone loss leads to osteoporosis. This disease weakens bones to the point where they break and fracture easily — resulting not only in pain but also in increased disability in later years.
Osteoporosis is fairly common in older adults, affecting about one in four American women and about one in 17 American men who are 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But instead of worrying about bone loss as you age, you can be proactive and learn how to keep your bones as strong as possible by understanding your osteoporosis risk factors and the importance of bone density screening.
What causes osteoporosis?
If you’ve wondered what causes osteoporosis and what role bone density plays in osteoporosis, here’s the explanation: Bone density is a way of characterizing how strong and dense your bones are. Osteoporosis occurs when your bone density is depleted and porous, making your bones brittle and weak, and susceptible to breaking.
Women tend to experience minimal change in their total bone mass between age 30 and menopause. Yet after menopause, changes in this level of bone density, known as peak bone mass, increase, according the National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center.
If you have osteoporsis risk factors, your doctor may order a bone density test, which measures bone mass in your hips and spine. This painless test uses a form of x-rays to identify osteoporosis and determine your risk for fractures. It’s also used to measure any bone density improvement if you are being treated for osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis risk factors
It’s important to recognize there are osteoporosis risk factors that you can’t alter. On the other hand, there are many risk factors you can work on to lower your risk of the bone-robbing condition, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases points out.
Osteoporosis risk factors you cannot change
- Your age. The odds of developing osteoporosis increase as you get older.
- Your gender. Women are at greater risk for osteoporosis than men because, after menopause, women no longer have as much bone protective estrogen. Women also have smaller bones than men and lose bone faster than their male counterparts.
- Your family history. If your mother or another close relative has osteoporosis, you have an increased risk of the condition.
- Your ethnicity. Caucasian and Asian women are more likely to have osteoporosis than African American and Hispanic women.
Osteoporosis risk factors you can change
- Diet. Make sure you eat a calcium-rich diet. Talk to your doctor about whether you should take calcium supplements and vitamin D, which may also help protect against osteoporosis
- Exercise. Regular physical activity over time helps bones stay strong.
- Body weight. Dieting to excess and being too thin raises the risk for osteoporosis.
- Alcohol. Drinking alcohol to excess can cause bone loss and contribute to broken bones.
- Smoking. Cigarettes interfere with your body’s use of calcium. Moreover, women who smoke start menopause earlier than those who don’t smoke.
Symptoms of calcium deficiency
Calcium is necessary for your body to function properly. It’s needed for normal nerve transmission, intracellular signaling, and hormonal secretion — and it’s crucial for strong bones.
If you are severely low in calcium, you could have symptoms of calcium deficiency, including muscle cramps, fatigue, and tingling in your lips and fingers. However, most people who are not consuming enough calcium have no symptoms of calcium deficiency, although their bones may be weakening.
Over the long term, inadequate calcium intake causes osteopenia — bone density that’s lower than normal but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis. If untreated, osteopenia can lead to osteoporosis. Your risk of bone fractures also increases, especially as you grow older, if calcium levels are inadequate, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
Consuming generous amounts of calcium in their diets might help slow the rate of bone loss in all women, the NIH points out. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are rich, natural sources of calcium; non-diary calcium sources include Chinese cabbage, kale, and broccoli.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDAs) for calcium for both men and women is 1,000 mg a day between the ages of 19 and 50. Women should take 1,200 mg daily after turning 51.
Signs and symptoms of osteoporosis
Unfortunately, you may not know you have osteoporosis until you suffer a broken bone, most often in your hip, backbone, or wrist. In fact, it’s called the "silent disease" because signs and symptoms osteoporosis are not obvious for many years, even though bone loss is occurring.
However, once bones have lost significant bone density, you may have these osteoporosis signs and symptoms:
- Loss of height over time
- A stooped posture
- Back pain
- A bone that fractures easier than expected (for example, from hard coughing or bumping into something)
How to prevent osteoporosis
Understand your risk factors for osteoporosis and take control of the ones you can to lower your risk.
Screening is important to find out the status of your bone density, too. The CDC recommends screening for osteoporosis for all women who are 65 years old or older and for younger women between 50 to 64 who have certain risk factors, including having a parent who has had broken a hip.
If your bone density is too low, you can work with your doctor on lifestyle changes and consider medication, if needed, to decrease the effects of osteoporosis.
Several prescription medications are available for the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis — including bisphosphonates, estrogen agonists/antagonists (also called selective estrogen receptor modulators or SERMS), calcitonin, parathyroid hormone, and estrogen, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Your doctor can determine which of these therapies is an appropriate treatment if you have bone loss.
February 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN