What is osteoporosis, and how can you avoid bone density loss?

What is osteoporosis, and how can you avoid bone density loss?

Osteoporosis can affect anyone

Most New Zealanders recognise the term “osteoporosis”, and know that it’s a condition where bones become brittle, break easily, and take longer than usual to heal.  But many believe that it can’t affect them unless they’re female and post-menopausal.

It’s true that 80% of those affected by osteoporosis are women, and that the majority of those women are older than 551.   This is because women usually have smaller, thinner bones to start with. But – at least as long as they keep menstruating – the oestrogen that women produce protects their bone density.

After menopause, however, women lose that protection; and as their oestrogen production drops, so does their bone mass.  However, men – and younger women – can and do sometimes develop osteoporosis. This means that building healthy bone density and then maintaining it is important for people of all ages.  

The risk factors for osteoporosis 

A wide range of medical, genetic, lifestyle and dietary factors interact with each other to determine your bone density at any given point in time.  Some of the specific risk factors for developing osteoporosis include:

  • Sex hormones: being a woman with low oestrogen levels, or a man with low testosterone levels
  • Age: being over 55 for women, or – to a lesser extent – over 65 for men
  • Build: low body weight, a small frame, or low bone mass
  • Family history: a history of osteoporosis in family members
  • Diet: a diet low in Calcium and other bone health minerals, or high in soft drinks, alcohol or coffee 
  • Physical activity: a non-active lifestyle with little exercise
  • Lifestyle choices: cigarette smoking or low Vitamin D levels due to lack of exposure to sunlight 
  • Medications: anticonvulsants, corticosteroids or aluminium-containing antacids
  • Medical conditions: fibromyalgia, anorexia nervosa, rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, and low stomach acidity

How can you check your bone density?

Up until bone fractures start to occur, osteoporosis usually has no overt symptoms.  This is why it is sometimes referred to as “the Silent Disease”.  Because of this, the only way to determine whether you’re at risk of osteoporosis is to ask your doctor for a Bone Mineral Density test.  

These tests are completely painless and non-invasive. So if more than one of the risk factors above apply to you, it’s essential to get your bone density tested.

Tips for maintaining healthy bone density and preventing osteoporosis

Most of the recommendations to support your overall general wellbeing will also help to support strong, healthy bones and reduce your osteoporosis risk.  However, specific recommendations include: 

  • Eating a balanced, healthy diet that is rich in Calcium and other bone-supporting minerals
  • Taking a Vitamin D supplement if you get insufficient sun exposure
  • Engaging in regular weight-bearing exercise (e.g. running, walking, resistance work or dancing)
  • Reducing or eliminating your alcohol intake
  • Not smoking
1AIHW 2011. A snapshot of osteoporosis in Australia 2011. Arthritis series no. 15. Cat. no. PHE 137. Canberra: AIHW.

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