An elderly woman bent over with a rounded back is typically the picture that comes to mind when you think of osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease that commonly strikes women after menopause. Read on to learn how to avoid that picture.
Osteoporosis affects 50 percent of women, largely because of the loss of estrogen during menopause. The hormone estrogen plays an important role in keeping bones healthy by helping bone cells to regenerate. When you lose estrogen, your bones can become thin and more susceptible to breaking.
More than 10 million Americans—mostly women—have osteoporosis. There is no cure for osteoporosis, often called brittle-bone disease. But treatment advances that increase bone density can help reduce the pain and debilitating injuries of past generations.
Building Blocks of Bone
During the teenage years, bones store calcium and other minerals in preparation for adulthood, when you reach your peak bone mass between the ages of 20 and 30. Although bones continually regenerate, after age 30, more bone mass is lost than can be replaced.
This loss of bone is a natural part of aging—most men and women lose about 1 percent of their bone mass a year. But the loss accelerates during menopause. Women lose between 2 percent and 7 percent of their bone mass every year.
When your bones lose a certain percentage of their mineral density, osteoporosis occurs. Often, you don’t know you’re in trouble until you experience a fracture, which is why the condition is often called a “silent epidemic.”
The fractures associated with osteoporosis can have devastating effects, compromising your independence and even leading to death. Hip fractures have particularly grave consequences: 20 percent of people with osteoporotic hip fractures die within the first year. And once you have your first fracture, you’re likely to have more.
If you’re entering menopause, it’s a good idea to have a bone density scan (DXA) to measure the amount of minerals in your bones. This scan will show whether you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, a thinning of the bone that is not as severe as osteoporosis.
Although osteoporosis is a lifelong condition, it can be treated effectively. Available treatments range from over-the-counter calcium and vitamin D supplements to prescription medications that slow bone loss and even rebuild bones. Estrogen therapy is another alternative, although the risks must be carefully weighed against the benefits.
Nutrition and Exercise Help Keep Osteoporosis in Check
- Eat foods high in calcium, such as milk and low-fat dairy products; a variety of seafood; dark, green leafy vegetables; and calcium-fortified foods, such as breads and orange juice. If you’re over age 50, you’ll need 1,200 mg of calcium each day, which you can also get from supplements.
- Vitamin D is important to help your body absorb calcium. In addition to being in the sun for a total of about 20 minutes a day, you can get vitamin D from eggs, fatty fish, cereal, milk fortified with vitamin D, and supplements.
Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, stair-climbing, jogging, or playing tennis, help keep your bones and muscles strong and prevent bone breakdown. To help you avoid falls, do strength and balance exercises.