What is osteoporosis?
Today (October 20, 2019) is World Osteoporosis Day. Since more than 54 million Americans have osteoporosis or may be at high risk, it is important that we work to better understand this condition, recognize its symptoms, and ultimately work to lessen its impact on global health.
Roughly 1 in 6 Americans has symptoms of osteoporosis. It’s likely that we all know someone who is affected by it, yet most people are not aware that they have it or that they’re even at risk. To those who are familiar with osteoporosis, it is known as the “silent disease,” frequently going unnoticed until there’s an incident that reveals the effects of the hidden battle raging inside a victim’s body.. Something as innocent as a sudden strain, bump or stumble can cause a wrist, rib or hip fracture–or even a collapsed vertebrae.
You might be wondering if the pain you’ve been feeling in your back might be signs of a much deeper, a bone-deep problem. It might be worth checking out and seeing your doctor. However, before you jump to any conclusions, let’s take a closer look at osteoporosis. The literal meaning of “osteoporosis” is “porous bone.” It’s a disease where your bone structure silently deteriorates without showing any symptoms that you’re losing bone tissue and mass.
The fact is your skeleton is constantly rebuilding itself. So, as your bones produce new tissue–a process called bone formation–they make room by shedding old tissue into your bloodstream, known as bone resorption. This process allows your skeleton to be strong and healthy, while releasing the calcium your body needs to absorb. In your youth, the process of bone formation happens at a more rapid rate than that of bone resorption. Once you’ve grown into your adult frame, bone formation and resorption processes level out. With osteoporosis, the rate of which your skeleton sheds bone tissue exceeds the rate of which your skeleton is rebuilding itself. This imbalance is one of the main factors that leads to weak and brittle bones associated with osteoporosis.
Who can get it?
While osteoporosis is a disease that’s most commonly associated with women, especially for those 50 years and older, but it’s not exclusive to them. Older women are twice as likely to be affected by the silent disease than their older male counterparts, but if you’re a guy and you think you’re off the hook, think again. If you’re in this age group, as many as 1 out of every 5 men are affected by osteoporosis, and for every 3 women, 1 is said to be affected by the disease. If you’re younger than this demographic, don’t think that this information doesn’t apply to you either! First and foremost, you are key in preventing the disease once you reach that age. So keep reading to find out how to best prevent this disease from taking hold…
What causes it?
Why are women who are 50 years and older especially vulnerable to osteoporosis? Unfortunately, the genetic make-up of women puts them at a disadvantage. Due to their skeletal frame, which is comprised of bones that are simply smaller, thinner and less dense, aging women tend to be more susceptible to osteoporosis than men. Again, if you’re a guy, you might silently be rejoicing for your bigger, thicker and more dense bones. The irony is, women tend to also generally outlive men, and as one gets older you simply become more susceptible to bone loss in general.
Estrogen plays an important role in bone resorption, so it follows that a shortfall of estrogen can lead to osteoporosis. The main cause for concern in older women is menopause. Once a woman is postmenopausal, her ovaries produce less of the hormone estrogen. Bone tissue and calcium is released at a more rapid rate than before. For aging men, the same applies but for the hormone testosterone. Similarly, when men reach 50 years or older, they begin producing less testosterone, as well as estradiol (a type of estrogen), and both play key roles in maintaining strong and thick bones in men.
Other factors besides aging can contribute to osteoporosis, such as having smaller bones, and a lack of production of sexual hormones. For those of us living with and treating any kind of autoimmune disease, decreased bone density tends to be a common side effect. Diseases include lupus, multiple sclerosis, Grave’s Disease (hyperthyroidism), celiac and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Diabetes, blood disorders, and mental health disorders, such as depression and eating disorders, also play a role in bone density loss. Breast and prostate cancer and treatments are also contributing factors for osteoporosis.
A side effect of certain medications, especially steroids prescribed over prolonged periods of time, taken as part of a treatment, can lead to bone density loss. Always consult your doctor when taking certain medications and treatments by asking what the immediate and prolonged side effects might be.
How can you detect osteoporosis?
If you’re part of this older demographic and you’ve been complaining about your back or your joints hurting, or you’ve noticed changes in your posture, then perhaps it’s time to ask your doctor for a bone density scan. A bone density scan is a foolproof way of detecting osteoporosis or osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. To be diagnosed with osteoporosis means that your bone mineral density T-score is 2.5 standard deviations below the normal population of average healthy women between the ages of 30 and 40 years-old. If you’re diagnosed with osteopenia, your bone density score is anywhere between 1 and 2.5 standard deviations below the normal population.
What factors can speed the onset of osteoporosis?
What can we do to prevent osteoporosis? It all boils down to your lifestyle choices, specifically what you put into your body and how you use it. Too much of a good thing can be bad for us. This applies especially to alcohol. One of the leading lifestyle choices that has an affect overall health is consuming too much alcohol. Drinking two or more glasses of alcohol daily is said to increase the risk of bone fractures. Ironically, alcohol in moderation is also said to be quite beneficial for bone density.
Of course, if too much of a good thing can be bad for us, then a bad thing is just plain bad for us! Smoking cigarettes is simply bad for your health, and not surprisingly, it has been linked to osteoporosis. Studies have found that smoking interferes with the mechanisms involved in bone formation, blocking osteoblasts, which are responsible for building bone tissue. Smoking depletes estrogen levels, reduces body weight, and has been linked to earlier menopause, all of which contribute to low bone density levels. So, if you haven’t quit smoking already, here’s yet another reason to quit smoking.
What can prevent or slow the onset of osteoporosis?
For those under 30, the importance of a healthy and nutritious diet is undeniable. The earlier you begin with healthy eating habits, the easier and the better it is for you in the long run. A nutritious diet includes eating plenty of protein. Proteins are the necessary building blocks for strong bones. Even for those with certain dietary restrictions, or a vegetarian or vegan, there is no reason to not get enough protein. Seek alternative protein sources such as dairy and eggs, and/or including plenty of legumes, soy, nuts and seeds to your diet.
More importantly, you should be getting enough calcium in your diet. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 50 years-old, you need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. If you’re 50 and over, then you need 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. For both age groups, the recommended daily intake of calcium applies to both men and women. The best way to meet these requirements is usually not through supplements, but by eating foods rich in calcium, unless otherwise prescribed. Don’t over do it! Too much calcium in your diet can lead to kidney stones, and may even be linked to heart disease.
Apart from dairy products, foods that are also rich in calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, collards, etc. In general, eating more vegetables, as well as fruits, leads to overall improved bone health. Vegetables and fruits are packed with vitamins C, K and A, fiber, and other minerals such as magnesium and potassium. When you eat vegetables you also ingest phytochemicals, plant-based preventative properties that fight against diseases such as osteoporosis. Canned salmon or sardines (with the bones) are also a rich source of calcium or substituting with soy products like tofu is equally beneficial to bone health. Finally calcium-fortified cereals coupled with a tall glass of orange juice is not only a great source of calcium, but a great way to start your day!
For your body to properly absorb the calcium generated from all of these wonderful foods, you will need vitamin D. You can get plenty of vitamin D from the sun. If you’re in sunny Florida, don’t forget to put on plenty of sunscreen! However, if your living situation makes catching rays problematic, then a supplement should do the trick. Again, consult your doctor on the recommended amount for your weight and body size.
In addition to limiting your alcohol consumption, not smoking, and eating a nutritious diet, one of the most helpful things you can do to prevent or slow osteoporosis is exercising. Exercising regularly at any age will help build and maintain strong and healthy bones. So no excuses! In studies, older adults who began exercising regularly even after their diagnosis, reduced their risk of bone fractures. Of course, you should exercise within your limits. Consult a certified trainer or physician to identify workout routines that would be most beneficial to you.
Again, if you begin exercising regularly from a young age, you will ultimately benefit the most in preventing bone fragility at an older age. The best approach is to combine strength training, weight bearing and balance exercises. Strength training exercises focus on building strong muscles and bones in your upper torso, arms and spine. You can use your body weight, weights, or resistance bands to get the most out of your workout. Routines can include chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, planks, etc. Weight-bearing aerobic exercises focus on bone and muscle groups in your legs, hips and lower spine. These routines include brisk walking, jogging/running, dancing, stair climbing, skiing and other impact producing sports. Aerobic sports also increase cardiovascular benefits. Finally, stability and balance exercises are especially useful in avoiding unnecessary falling and stumbling. Exercises such as tai-chi, ballet and yoga, allow you to go through a range of movements while focusing on strengthening your core and improving your overall posture.
Raising awareness for osteoporosis!
All in all, the reason for World Osteoporosis day is that this disease affects us all, whether directly or indirectly. Some individuals might be more susceptible than others. Nevertheless, as we age our bones lose their density over time. It’s important to know what you can do to help yourself and your loved ones, in an effort to improve your overall quality of life as you age.
To find a healthcare professional, use HealthLynked. It is a first of its kind medical network built as a social ecosystem with a higher purpose – improving healthcare. Go to HealthLynked.com to learn more, sign up for free, connect with your doctor, find a new doctor, and securely store and share your health information. Download our HealthLynked app available on Apple and Android devices.
Contributing blog writer, Marpessa Rietbergen, is a Provider Administrator at HealthLynked.
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