The word “osteoporosis” usually brings to mind an image of a frail woman with brittle bones. Younger women usually don’t spend much time pondering osteoporosis, but right now is the best time to learn more about this debilitating condition and take some preventive steps to minimize your risks.
First, to understand osteoporosis you need to know a little about our changing bone structure.
Bone cells are constantly remodeling our skeleton and require minerals such as calcium and phosphorus to make our bones hard and strong. So in addition to having enough calcium in your diet, you need an adequate amount of vitamin D to allow your body both to absorb calcium from your meals and incorporate this element in your bones. Hormones such as estrogen in women and testosterone in men help regulate bone density by governing its mineral content.
Throughout the growing years and up to age 30, your bones continue to become denser if you have adequate nutrition. Then, the density of your bones slowly decreases over time. In osteoporosis, bones become progressively less dense and more fragile, leaving the individual at risk for fractures from even minor falls.
There are several different types of osteoporosis. Postmenopausal osteoporosis occurs in women and is caused by a lack of estrogen. Women particularly at risk for this type of osteoporosis may have had a hysterectomy, without hormone replacement therapy, early in life. In general, postmenopausal women between the ages of 51 and 75 are at risk.
Senile osteoporosis occurs as a natural part of aging and, over the age of 70, typically affects women more than men. Secondary osteoporosis is generally caused by drug side effects or other medical conditions such as kidney failure or thyroid problems.
Medical literature has outlined a number of factors that place women at high risk for this disease. These include: family history of osteoporosis, lack of calcium in your diet, a thin build, white or Asian race, lack of regular exercise, no pregnancies, early menopause, cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and the use of corticosteriods, which form a class of medicines.
In recent years, the medical community has become much more aware of the importance of early detection and risk reduction of this problem. Bone density tests are readily available so individuals at risk can be treated with medication and exercise before a bone fracture may occur.
Since this disease weakens the skeleton, weight-bearing bones such as the vertebrae and hips are particularly susceptible to injury. Often even a minor trauma can cause compression fractures of the vertebrae, resulting in a curved-forward posture. In many cases physical therapy can be helpful by strengthening the supporting musculature and providing education and safety techniques for how you move your body.
If a hip is fractured, the head of the femur (top of the thighbone) is usually replaced with a metal substitute, which allows the individual to quickly bear weight on the affected leg. After this surgery is performed, the patient typically stays briefly in a rehabilitation hospital to strengthen the leg and regain independence.
Steps you can take now to help prevent osteoporosis are simple. Drink 2 glasses of milk every day and make sure you get a daily dose of vitamin D. But if you are lactose intolerant, ask your doctor about calcium supplements. Since bone cells develop in response to vertical stress through the bone, weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging or using weights can significantly improve bone density.
If you are concerned about your risk factors, talk to your doctor and remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!