Kim Elliott, RN, Expert on Healthy Aging

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15 May 2017

truth about osteoporosis

I’m happy to say that there is more hope on the horizon for managing osteoporosis, a disease that often stops seniors in their tracks if they fracture a bone after falling. I have even heard of some extreme cases where seniors have actually broken their bones by sneezing or bumping into furniture!

May is National Osteoporosis Awareness Month. Until recently, osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, was considered an inevitable part of the aging process for which little could be done to prevent or cure it. Thankfully, there are some new innovative therapies, some of which may further increase bone mass, thereby cutting down the fracture risk in older adults.

Current medications for osteoporosis either slow the loss of bone breakdown or increase the rate of new bone formation. Many of these treatments entail strict methods for administering them, which can have serious side effects if taken incorrectly.

More than half of the 99 million Americans over age 50 in the United States have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or have low bone mass, a number that could grow to 64 million by 2020. It’s often called the “silent disease” because some people don’t know they have it until they break a bone. Even those who haven’t suffered a fracture may live in constant fear of breaking a bone because the consequences can be life altering – typically, half the patients who fracture their hip do not fully recover their independence.

Osteoporosis hits women harder than men. For females, the incidence of this disease is greater than that of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. One in two women (compared to one in four men) will break a bone in their lifetime due to this condition. Females are in greater danger because they generally have a smaller bone mass than men – women with small frames are particularly at risk, as are older women given that bone loss occurs rapidly during menopause.

Older men too have a greater chance of developing osteoporosis than younger ones. In addition to age and sex, race plays a role, with Caucasians and Asians more at risk than other racial groups. As well, those with a family history of osteoporosis stand a greater likelihood of developing this disease, and those who have been taking steroid medication for a long time are at risk of developing rapid and severe bone loss.

Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle can also make a difference. For instance, those who do not consume enough calcium through food or supplements increase their chance of developing osteoporosis. (The National Osteoporosis Foundation has some good information about how to get adequate amounts of this mineral.) Inactivity can also increase the likelihood of developing this condition, as bones build up in response to weight bearing and strength training exercises. (Check out Osteoporosis Canada’s resources about exercise.)

Other lifestyle factors that put people at risk include:

  • Smoking
  •  Drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day for women or two for men
  • Consuming more than three or four cups of coffee per day

Although I have painted a grim picture, please don’t waste time worrying about this disease. In honor of National Osteoporosis Month, take action instead. For starters, learn how you can prevent falls. If you are a woman over 65 or a man over 70, ask your doctor for a bone density test.

I also suggest that you look at improving your diet and upping your physical activity – some factors, like your sex, age or race, are not within your control – but your lifestyle choices certainly are. Finally, talk to your doctor about the medications on the market that slow down the process of bone loss, and don’t forget to keep up-to-date about new treatments. The truth is that the news about osteoporosis isn’t all bad.


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