An estimated 10 million Americans aged 50 years and older have osteoporosis and 20% of them (2 million) are male, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Promotion. An additional 43 million people — including 16 million men — have low bone mass, putting them at risk for developing osteoporosis. The disease affects every race, ethnicity, and gender.
“Osteoporosis shouldn’t be accepted as a normal part of aging,” says Ankit Garg, MD, vice president medical affairs and medical director at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “There are things everyone can do to improve bone health throughout their life.”
Bones are living, growing tissue, and throughout your life your body is losing and making new bone mass. Osteoporosis develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decrease, or when the structure and strength of bones change. It is the major cause of fractures in postmenopausal women and older men, most commonly in bones of the hip, wrist, and vertebrae in the spine. Usually there aren’t any symptoms, and many people don’t know they have it until they break a bone.
“You’re never too young, or too old to make lifestyle changes to improve bone health,” says Dr. Garg. Lifestyle changes include stopping smoking; reducing alcohol intake; eating a healthy diet with plenty of calcium-containing foods including dark green leafy vegetables; having moderate exposure to sunlight (but avoiding sunburn) to get enough vitamin D; and trying to do 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise each day, such as walking or strength training with weights. Always consult your health care provider before beginning an exercise program.
Fall prevention is also important to maintaining bone heath and reducing the risk of fractures. Your health care provider can assess your risk of falling, and provide tips to avoid them, and also fall-proof your home.
“Preventing falls is important, whether or not you have osteoporosis, because bone fractures can cause other medical problems and take away your ability to live independently,” says Dr. Garg.
Bone mineral density (BMD) testing, also known as a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, DEXA, or DEZ, is used to determine bone health and diagnose osteoporosis. The test is quick and painless and uses a small amount of X-ray to measure the amount of minerals (mostly calcium and phosphorous) contained in a certain volume of bone. In addition to being used to diagnose the disease, BMD testing is used to determine how well osteoporosis treatment is working, and how likely the patient is to suffer a fracture. If diagnosed, there are many drugs and hormone therapies available to prevent further bone loss and to stimulate new bone formation.
“At your next medical office visit, ask your health care provider if BMD testing should be included among your regular preventative screenings, and about any lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent osteoporosis or slow its progression,” advises Dr. Garg.
May is Bone Health Awareness Month. Learn more about osteoporosis from the National Institutes of Health online at https://www.bones.nih.gov.