Osteoporosis: Not just for women anymore

  • Published
  • By Maj. Joanne Bollhofer-White
  • 579th Medical Group
In recent years, there has been a lot of publicity about osteoporosis, or bone loss. Commercials have even featured celebrities such as Sally Field talking about the benefit of certain prescription drugs to stop or reverse bone loss. 

People may ask themselves, "Why is osteoporosis such a hot topic? What can be done to prevent bone loss? Are prescription medications the only way to treat bone loss?" 

Even though bone appears solid and unchanging, it is constantly renewing itself. While we are growing, the process of adding new bone is more rapid than the removal of old bone. After the age of 30, the process of adding new bone begins to slow down so that by menopause, the rate of bone loss exceeds that of new bone formation. The result is osteoporosis, which causes bones to become less thick and therefore more fragile and prone to fractures. 

In the U.S. today, more than 44 million people over the age of 50 have osteoporosis or osteopenia, a possible precursor to osteoporosis. 

Lack of estrogen after menopause is an automatic risk factor. Some inherited factors that can put people at risk of osteoporosis are small body frame (less than 100 pounds), persons of Caucasian, Asian or Other Pacific Islander descent, or a family history of osteoporosis. 

Some lifestyle choices like smoking, being a "couch potato" and excessive caffeine or poor calcium intake, can also increase risk. Finally, long-term use of certain medications such as steroids, contraceptive injections, anti-epileptics or barbiturates can also cause bone loss and increase risk. 

Osteoporosis is known as a silent disease because bone loss occurs without the person being aware of it. The first sign of the disease can be a fracture, usually with very little pressure applied. 

Fortunately, screening tests to measure bone density are available for people at risk for osteoporosis. Once identified, there are treatments available to stop or help reverse bone loss. Health care providers can consult with patients about risk factors and determine if there's a need to be screened. 

Preventing osteoporosis should be a goal for everyone and can start as early as elementary school. An adequate daily supply of calcium (1,300 milligrams a day from ages nine to 18; 1000 milligrams a day from ages 19 to 49; and 1,500 milligrams from age 50 on) ensures that the body has this essential building block. 

To help absorb calcium, the body also needs vitamin D, so any calcium supplements should contain vitamin D. Weight-bearing exercise that requires muscles to pull on bones, like walking, climbing stairs or lifting weights, will help bones keep, and possibly increase, in thickness. 

If diagnosed with osteoporosis, calcium and exercise should be the first steps in maintaining bone thickness. In addition, there are several prescription medications available that can provide added protection. 

Everyone has heard the adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Following this advice can help ensure strong bones and will go a long way toward a healthy, fracture-free life.