Everyone loses bone with age. After 35 years of age, the body builds less new bone to replace the loss of old bone. In general, the older you are, the lower your total bone mass and the greater your risk for osteoporosis.
A family history of fractures; a small, slender body build; fair skin; and Caucasian or Asian ethnicity can increase the risk for osteoporosis. Heredity also may help explain why some people develop osteoporosis early in life.
Poor nutrition, including a low calcium diet, low body weight, and a sedentary lifestyle have been linked to osteoporosis, as have smoking and excessive alcohol use.
Osteoporosis has been linked to the use of some medications, including steroids, and to other illnesses, including some thyroid problems.
To prevent osteoporosis, slow its progression, and protect yourself from fractures you should include adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D in your diet and exercise regularly.
During the growing years, your body needs calcium to build strong bones and to create a supply of calcium reserves. Building bone mass when you are young is a good investment for your future. Inadequate calcium during growth can contribute to the development of osteoporosis later in life.
Whatever your age or health status, you need calcium to keep your bones healthy. Calcium continues to be an essential nutrient after growth because the body loses calcium every day. Although calcium cannot prevent gradual bone loss after menopause, it continues to play an essential role in maintaining bone quality. Even if women have gone through menopause or already have osteoporosis, increasing intake of calcium and Vitamin D can decrease the risk of fracture.
How much calcium you need will vary depending on your age and other factors. The National Academy of Sciences makes the following recommendations regarding daily intake of calcium:
Dairy products, including yogurt and cheese, are excellent sources of calcium. An eight-ounce glass of milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Other calcium-rich foods include sardines with bones and green leafy vegetables, including broccoli and collard greens.
If your diet does not contain enough calcium, dietary supplements can help. Talk to your doctor before taking a calcium supplement.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. The recommendation for Vitamin D is 200-600 IU (international units) daily. Supplemented dairy products are an excellent source of Vitamin D. (A cup of milk contains 100 IU of Vitamin D. A multivitamin contains 400 IU of Vitamin D.) Vitamin supplements can be taken if your diet does not contain enough of this nutrient. Again, consult with your doctor before taking a vitamin supplement. Too much Vitamin D can be toxic.
Like muscles, bones need exercise to stay strong. No matter what your age, exercise can help minimize bone loss while providing many additional health benefits. Doctors believe that a program of moderate, regular exercise (3 to 4 times a week) is effective for the prevention and management of osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging, hiking, climbing stairs, dancing, treadmill exercises, and weight lifting are probably best. Falls account for 50% of fractures; therefore, even if you have low bone density, you can prevent fractures if you avoid falls. Programs that emphasize balance training, especially tai chi, should be emphasized. Consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
The diagnosis of osteoporosis is usually made by your doctor using a combination of a complete medical history and physical examination, skeletal x-rays, bone densitometry, and specialized laboratory tests. If your doctor diagnoses low bone mass, he or she may want to perform additional tests to rule out the possibility of other diseases that can cause bone loss, including osteomalacia (a metabolic bone disease characterized by abnormal mineralization of bone) or hyperparathyroidism (overactivity of the parathyroid glands).
Bone densitometry is a safe, painless x-ray technique that compares your bone density to the peak bone density that someone of your same sex and ethnicity should have reached at 20 to 25 years of age.
Bone densitometry is often performed in women at the time of menopause. Several types of bone densitometry are used today to detect bone loss in different areas of the body. Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) is one of the most accurate methods, but other techniques can also identify osteoporosis, including single photon absorptiometry (SPA), quantitative computed tomography (QCT), radiographic absorptiometry, and ultrasound. Your doctor can determine which method is best suited for you.