Thanks to the skeleton decor of the last month, we’re thinking about bones this November. In light of that, welcome to the first of our four-part series on bone health, starting with osteoporosis!
What is Osteoporosis?
“Osteoporosis” means porous bone, and it’s a condition that causes bone loss, making bones brittle and weak. The bones of people with osteoporosis are so fragile that they fracture easily — so easily that coughing, bumping into a chair, or even bending over can cause fractures.
Here’s how it happens:
Bones are a type of living tissue that regenerates over time (like skin). Osteoporosis occurs when natural bone loss outpaces the body’s ability to produce new bone. The result is porous bone, specifically, a loss of the internal bony matrix as shown in this Mayo Clinic illustration.
6 risk factors for osteoporosis
Women over 50 are the most likely to develop osteoporosis, though it can also occur in men and younger people. Here are 6 key osteoporosis risk factors you should know:
Women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. Women tend to have lighter, thinner bones and longer lives, plus menopause factors in. (After menopause, estrogen, a key regulator for bone metabolism, drops significantly.)
Bone density peaks around age 30 (when we’re younger, our bones grow new cells faster than they lose them), then begins to decline. This is why it’s so critical to begin to practice good bone health early on. The better your bone density at the time bone loss begins to outpace regrowth, the better your chances of bone strength through the end of life.
Because of differences in bone mineral density, White and Asian populations are at higher risk for osteoporosis.
Lowered sex hormones (estrogen for women and testosterone for men), excess thyroid hormone, and overactive parathyroid and adrenal glands have all been associated with osteoporosis.
Lack of proper nutrients like calcium can contribute to developing osteoporosis. This includes low calcium intake, eating disorders, and gastrointestinal surgery (which limits nutrient absorption by reducing parts of your digestive tract).
Medications and medical conditions
Long-term steroid use can interfere with bone health, as can medications used to combat seizures, acid reflux, and cancer. People with medical problems like kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis are also at higher risk.
“Osteoporosis—the loss of bone density and weakening of your skeleton—is a silent disease and causes no symptoms until someone has a fracture.”
Deborah Sellmeyer, M.D., Johns Hopkins Metabolic Bone Center
How do you know if you have osteoporosis?
Unfortunately, as Dr. Sellmeyer notes, there are no real symptoms of osteoporosis. Because we can’t feel what happens in our bones, most don’t know they have osteoporosis until they experience a painful and unexpected fracture.
While there are treatments for osteoporosis such as Prolia, complete reversal of the condition is not possible — making prevention the best form of action.
Monitor bone density with bone scans
Bone scans, or bone density tests, measure bone mineral density (BMD) and can tell you whether your bone density is normal or low. These are recommended for all women 65 or over and men 70 or over, but if you’re concerned about your risk for osteoporosis, you can schedule one earlier.
You can take an active role in your bone health! Get a head start or fight against current bone loss with supplementation, diet, and exercise. We’ll explore how in the next three posts.
Cauley, Jane A. “Estrogen and bone health in men and women.” Steroids vol. 99, Pt A (2015): 11-5. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2014.12.010
“Osteoporosis.” Mayo Clinic. (August 2021) Accessed online Oct. 26, 2021.
“Osteoporosis: What You Need to Know As You Age.” Johns Hopkins Medicine.