Osteoporosis Overview

While more common in older women, osteoporosis can affect men and women of any age.

Osteoporosis—also known as “brittle bone disease”—is a condition that causes bones to become thin and weak, putting them at risk of breaking easily. An estimated 54 million Americans either are currently diagnosed with osteoporosis or are at risk for this disease due to low bone mass (a condition called osteopenia). Although osteoporosis can impact females and males of all ages, women are especially vulnerable to the condition. Approximately one in two women and up to one in four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis at some point in their lifetime. Regardless of gender, one’s risk of osteoporosis increases as they age. With advances in medicine helping people live longer, this means a growing number of people may be affected by osteoporosis in the future.

If you suffer from osteoporosis, you may be at risk of breaking bones in your hip, spine, and wrist. In some cases, osteoporosis can also cause you to lose height; this is because the disease can lead the bones of the spine to break or collapse, leading you to become stooped or hunched.

The spongy structure of a healthy bone vs a bone suffering from osteoporosis. (Source: 123RF)

Losing Bone Mass

The body continually breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone. But as you age, more bone is broken down than is replaced. In fact, by about age 30, a person’s bone mass stops increasing. Over time, this change can lead to lower bone mass. For women, the risk is magnified due to decreases in the levels of the hormone estrogen that occur in leading up and following menopause, accelerating bone loss. By around age 65 or 70, however, men and women tend to lose bone at about the same rate.

Aside from being female and being older, risk factors for osteoporosis include being slender and thin-boned, and being white or Asian. Having a family history of osteoporosis also increases risk.

Other osteoporosis risk factors include:

  • a diet low in calcium and vitamin D
  • certain conditions, such as eating disorders, chronic lung disease, chronic liver or kidney disease, and hyperthyroidism
  • prior gastrointestinal surgery that reduces the absorption of calcium and other nutrients
  • long-term use of certain medications, including glucocorticoids, which are used to control diseases such as arthritis and asthma; some anti-seizure medications; anti-clotting drugs such as heparin; drugs that suppress the immune system; lithium; and proton pump inhibitors
  • low levels of physical activity and prolonged bed rest
  • excessive alcohol use (three or more drinks daily)
  • smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke.

While most of these risk factors apply to both men and women, other risk factors specific to males include low testosterone level, prostate cancer, and use of some prostate cancer treatments.

Addressing Osteoporosis Risks

Your risk of falling and fracturing a bone will be increased if you have poor balance, decreased muscle strength, poor eyesight, or impaired mental abilities. Some medications, such as muscle relaxants and tranquilizers, can also increase your risk of falls.

The best way to prevent osteoporosis is by getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet and engaging in regular exercise, including weight-bearing and strength-training activities and those that focus on improving balance. It’s also crucial not to smoke and to limit alcohol consumption.

It’s never too soon to start caring for your bone health. Taking steps in the teen years can help prevent osteoporosis later in life. If you already have osteoporosis, the steps recommended herein—including taking medications your physician prescribes—can slow down the progression of the disease and reduce your risk of fractures.

Updated on: 02/25/19
Continue Reading:
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Osteoporosis
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