We all know that as we get older, we become more susceptible to certain illnesses and age-related conditions. Just about everyone is aware of the dangers associated with conditions such as heart and lung disease, stroke, and diabetes, but not everyone knows about the dangers of osteoporosis.
Unfortunately, the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) estimates that a total of 54 million U.S. adults age 50 and older are affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass (osteopenia). Furthermore, an extension of the same study estimated that 43.4 million Americans have low bone mass, meaning more than one-half of the total U.S. adult population is currently affected.
What is Osteoporosis?
Most people probably don’t think of their bones as being alive, but they are living parts of the body, and every day our bodies break down old bone cells and replace them with new ones. As we age, however, our bodies start slowing down, and many of us lose the ability to replace all of the bone we lose. When too much of the bone is lost, the likelihood of developing osteoporosis increases.
Due to this loss in bone tissue, bones that were once strong and dense can become weak, brittle and prone to breakage. Osteoporosis-related fractures frequently occur in the spine, wrist and hip, and it can also cause bone pain, a reduction in height and a slumped posture – all of which can lead to feelings of angst, anxiety and depression.
While experts can’t say for sure who will develop osteoporosis, research has revealed the factors that make some people more susceptible than others. That’s why The Legacy at Home believes it’s important to raise awareness about the risk factors and ways to protect yourself from this condition.
Understanding Bone Health
In general, your risk of developing osteoporosis depends on your bone health – that is, the size and strength of your bones, as well as the condition of the bone tissue. Bone health is the result of several factors, including how well your skeleton developed during your early childhood and adolescence, as well as your peak bone mass (the maximum amount of bone tissue you have).
Most people reach their peak bone mass in their late 20s to their early 30s.
Unfortunately, there are some risk factors that simply can’t be changed, such as age and family history. That being said, just because you’re at risk doesn’t mean you will develop osteoporosis. It’s possible for your doctor to monitor your bone health for early signs of bone loss or abnormal bone loss and take the proper steps to prevent osteoporosis or to slow its development.
Common risk factors for osteoporosis include:
Age. The older we get, the more likely we are to develop osteoporosis and break a bone as a result. After reaching peak bone mass, it’s normal to begin losing a small percentage of bone mass each year. This happens because, as mentioned earlier, new bone formation slows with age, while bone breakdown stays the same or increases. The internal structure of bones also begins to weaken, and the outer shell thins.
Gender. Women usually have lower peak bone mass than men, and they also tend to live longer. In short, this means women have less bone to lose but more time to lose it. Additionally, women experience a reduction in estrogen levels during menopause, which usually accelerates bone loss. It’s for this reason that osteoporosis is most common among postmenopausal women.
Genetics. Family history can be a strong predictor of whether we develop low bone mass. If your mother, sister, grandmother or aunt has osteoporosis, then you’re at greater risk. It’s important to remember that having a family history of low bone mass doesn’t mean the same will happen to you. By taking steps to lower your risk, osteoporosis can be prevented.
Health-Related Risk Factors
Individual health circumstances, including health conditions and medications, can influence our risk of developing osteoporosis. These include:
Childbearing. Pregnancy builds stronger bones by raising estrogen levels and increasing weight. However, bone density decreases slowly during pregnancy and speeds up while nursing, but this bone loss can be recovered within six months after most women stop nursing.
Medications. Certain medications can accelerate bone loss and increase your risk of osteoporosis. If you take any of the following medications, then talk to your health care professional about what you can do to counteract their effects on bone health.
- Corticosteroid medicines. Long-term use of corticosteroids, including prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, lowers bone mass. If you take one of these medications for more than a few weeks, then your doctor will likely monitor your bone density and recommend preventive measures.
- If you take a medication to control seizures (anticonvulsants) over a long period of time, then your liver begins to metabolize vitamin D in a way that can lead to a deficiency of the vitamin. If you take an anticonvulsant medication, your doctor may recommend vitamin D and calcium supplements.
- Thyroid medicines. When used in excessive quantities, thyroid medications can cause high thyroid hormone blood levels that accelerate bone loss.
- These drugs prevent fluid buildup in your body. But by doing so, certain diuretics can cause the kidneys to excrete too much calcium, leading to weaker bones.
- Other drugs. Certain blood thinners, such as heparin, can cause bone loss when used over a long period of time, as can aromatase inhibitors, a class of drugs used to treat breast cancer, and drugs that are used to treat endometriosis and prostate cancer.
Medical conditions. Certain medical conditions can increase the risk of osteoporosis by slowing bone formation or speeding up bone breakdown. These include:
- Endocrine disorders such as hypogonadism, overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), hyperparathyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome and diabetes
- Gastrointestinal disorders, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, lactose intolerance and liver disorders such as primary biliary cirrhosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Absent or infrequent menstrual cycles in women of childbearing age
- Gastrointestinal surgery
Are There Risk Factors That Can Be Changed?
Although the risks may sound alarming, it’s important to realize there are some risk factors for osteoporosis that we can control, and it’s never too late to start doing something about our bone health.
Here are several factors we can control to maintain bone density and reduce bone loss:
Low calcium and vitamin D intakes. A lifelong lack of calcium plays a significant role in the development of osteoporosis. Low calcium intake contributes to poor bone density and early bone loss, as well as an increased risk of fractures. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so chronically low levels can contribute to osteoporosis. If you suspect you may not be getting enough Vitamin D in your diet, it may be a good idea to have your vitamin D levels checked.
Eating disorders. Eating disorders can lead to any number of nutrient deficiencies, which can in turn lead to poor bone density and early bone loss.
Lack of physical activity. Regular physical activity is key to preventing osteoporosis and fractures, and lack of exercise can actually accelerate bone loss. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking and resistance training can help us increase – or at least maintain – our bone density at any age.
Smoking. As if we needed another good reason to quit, evidence shows smoking is bad for our bones. Smoking interferes with the production of estrogen and testosterone, which are necessary to build bone, and it also makes it harder for the body to absorb calcium.
Alcohol use. Alcohol intake is especially hard on our bones, reducing the amount of new bone tissue our bodies make and stimulating the bone-loss process.
Treatment for Osteoporosis
There are a number of different medications which are approved for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. However, these medications must be carefully tailored to each person’s specific needs and should be used in conjunction with recommended lifestyle changes.
Without going into too much detail (you can visit the page on osteoporosis treatment by the International Osteoporosis Foundation for in-depth information), osteoporosis medications typically work to strengthen and preserve the bone mass you already have. So, in a sense, prevention is the best medicine.
How The Legacy at Home Can Help
For older adults, preventing bone loss before it becomes osteoporosis can help them lead longer, healthier and happier lives. If you suspect that you or a loved one could benefit from receiving care services in the home, The Legacy at Home offers a variety of services to fit your needs.
If you’d like to learn more about any other care services through The Legacy at Home, including at-home personal care, physical/speech therapy, or hospice, reach out to us and our knowledgeable team can answer your questions, address any concerns, and offer advice. The Legacy at Home strives to be a resource not only for our clients, but for the Plano and Greater Dallas communities as well. Call our experts at (972) 244-7701 or to learn more.