Osteoporosis is a common bone disease that occurs most often in older adults. It makes bones weak and more likely to fracture due to a deficiency in calcium and vitamin D. Nearly 10 million Americans are currently suffering from osteoporosis. It is important for older adults to take measures to improve bone health and prevent osteoporosis-related injury.
Bones are living, growing tissues that are constantly regenerating. They are structured like a honeycomb, with intricate gaps and spaces. With osteoporosis, the spaces in the bone structure are much larger than in a healthy bone. These bones become porous and less dense, so they weaken and are more likely to fracture.
Osteoporosis often has no symptoms. People with this disease cannot feel their bones getting weaker, and many people do not know they have osteoporosis until they experience a fracture, which most often occurs in the hip, spine or wrist. These can be caused by falling or bumping into an object, or in severe cases, from simple movements like sneezing or hugging.
Women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, especially after they reach menopause. During menopause, their levels of estrogen — a hormone that protects bones — decreases, which can cause bone loss. In general, women have smaller and thinner bones than men, so they are also more susceptible to fractures.
Fractures due to osteoporosis are common, dangerous and costly. Nearly one in two women and one in four men over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. About half of all hip fracture patients over age 50 will never regain a normal level of mobility. These injuries can lead to expensive medical bills for patients. Osteoporosis-related fractures cost patients an estimated $19 billion annually.
Early diagnosis can make a big difference in people with osteoporosis. For those who think they may be at risk, a bone mineral density test can determine if osteoporosis is present. This test is conducted by a physician and uses a machine to measure bone density. Those older than 50 should talk to their primary care provider about when they should get a bone density test. If osteoporosis is diagnosed, healthy eating habits, exercise and medication can help to rebuild bone density.
Osteoporosis is preventable, and for older adults, bone loss can at least be slowed or stopped. Adults should get a healthy intake of calcium and vitamin D each day, and avoid consuming harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco. Calcium and vitamin D-rich foods include dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt; fruits and vegetables, like broccoli, figs, kale and oranges; and proteins like salmon, soybeans and tofu. Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises are also recommended to help strengthen bones.
Taking steps to improve bone health early in life can help prevent osteoporosis. To catch and treat osteoporosis in its early stages, adults older than 50 should ask their primary care provider about scheduling a BMD test. An osteoporosis treatment plan may be necessary, and could include medication or hormone therapy.
Dr. Jessica Pennington is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.