Osteoporosis: It’s never too late to prioritize bone health
May is National Osteoporosis Awareness Month. It’s a good time to talk about bones, everything they do for us, and how we owe them some respect by watching out for their health.
There’s an important fact to mention upfront – the biggest risk associated with osteoporosis is fractures. We’ll emphasize how to minimize that risk, including things we can do to prevent the disease from developing, and ways to prevent falls that can lead to breaks (covered in an earlier SeaCare article).
Osteoporosis means “porous bone” and is a disease that causes bones to weaken and lose mass. It’s common, affecting some 54 million Americans. Of those, about one in two women and one in four men over age 50 will break a bone because of it.
These are big numbers and they reflect a condition that belongs mostly to older adults. But awareness belongs to everyone, including younger adults, caregivers, and children.
Here’s some good news. Osteoporosis is largely preventable and treatable. It’s never too early, or too late, to employ habits and practices to address this serious disease.
We reach our peak bone density around age 30, after which it declines. This means parents play an important role in helping their children and young adults develop bone-healthy practices. Strong bones developed early stay vital longer.
Post-menopausal women experience most of their bone density loss in the 10 years following menopause. This is a crucial time to know what dietary and activity practices can help to minimize the loss.
Have a look at some interesting facts about our skeletal system to understand more about the importance of taking care of it. Our bones are not only the framework of our bodies, they’re also caretakers.
- Did you know that inch for inch, healthy bone is stronger than the steel used in skyscrapers?
- Bones stop growing in length in early adulthood when we reach our peak height. But they continue to change throughout the course of our life. They may grow in thickness, depending on our level of activity.
- Bones have the superpower of self-repair, such as when a break heals.
- Bones attach to our skeletal muscles to assist in movement.
- They form a protective framework for our internal organs.
- Our bones are a storehouse of minerals important to overall health, especially cardiovascular function – essentials like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium.
- Bone marrow contains blood cells that move oxygen, and platelets which repair damage.
- Bones help to keep certain toxic metals out of our circulatory system.
- Our skeletons help to coordinate our fight-or-flight response by releasing the hormone osteocalcin, which also helps our muscles use fuel during exercise. (Karsenty, 2017)
Some risk factors for osteoporosis are beyond our control
Bone density decreases for everyone as we age, but osteoporosis is not a given. There are, however, some inherent risk factors. Because we have no control over them, certain people have a higher chance of developing osteoporosis.
These are traits we cannot change about ourselves:
- Gender. Women are twice as likely as men to develop osteoporosis, partly due to menopause and having lighter bones to start with. A woman’s risk of breaking a hip because of osteoporosis equals her risk of uterine, breast, and ovarian cancer combined. (Note for transgender people: going through gender confirmation may impact your risk for osteoporosis. Talk with your health care provider.)
- Age. Osteoporosis becomes much more common for both men and women after the age of 50.
- Family history. Osteoporosis and fractures can be directly linked to heredity.
- Menopause. Because estrogen levels decline rapidly after menopause, bone loss happens as well.
- Small bones. Small and thin body types may be more prone to osteoporosis.
- History of broken bones. Suffering fractures earlier in life, particularly in any part of the spine, can increase the likelihood of osteoporosis.
Some risk factors are related to other medical conditions and the drugs commonly used to treat them
Certain medical conditions can increase the odds of developing osteoporosis, in part due to the medications commonly used in treatment.
Conditions that may cause bone loss include:
- autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- endocrine disorders like diabetes and Graves’ disease
- blood disorders like sickle cell disease and leukemia
- neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and multiple sclerosis
- gastrointestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease.
This list is not exhaustive. There are several other medical disorders that can contribute to bone loss. Consult your health care provider for help in determining your level of risk.
Older adults are more likely to use medicines to treat chronic conditions, some of which may increase the odds of developing osteoporosis. Health care providers and pharmacists can help weigh the pros and cons of drugs prescribed for some medical disorders and whether to continue their use.
One category of drug likely to lead to bone loss is steroids (especially with long-term use), which is often used to ease inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or gout. Some antacids, certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used for depression, treatments for acid reflux disease, and chemotherapeutic drugs may also cause bone loss.
(Note: never stop taking any prescribed medication unless directed to do so by your doctor.)
Steps for minimizing bone loss — for many, osteoporosis is preventable
It makes sense to talk about preventing osteoporosis by looking at lifestyle habits that are within our power to change. Even with a diagnosis of osteoporosis, it’s possible to make changes that reduce our risk of injury.
Here are some practices that can improve bone health, no matter our age.
- Make sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is an essential mineral for strong bones and is available from a variety of sources. Vitamin D helps the body use calcium. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends these amounts.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Eating a variety of plants, including grains, helps to provide the many vitamins and minerals that contribute to bone health. Along with calcium and vitamin D, potassium and magnesium are important for bones. Doctors may prescribe supplements for diets lacking in some areas.
- Stay active. Regular exercise, particularly weight-bearing activities like weight workouts and walking, can help to strengthen bones.
- Don’t smoke. Smokers’ bodies do not readily absorb enough calcium. Smoking can affect the absorption of estrogen. Nicotine impairs the production of bone-forming cells that are necessary for healing.
- Watch alcohol intake. While occasional drinking doesn’t appear to impact bone health, excessive consumption can impact calcium stores. Heavy alcohol use may also cause more falls and fractures.
- Learn about reducing risk for falls.
Ways to prevent falls and reduce risk of fracture
According to Seattle & King County Public Health, one in three adults aged 65 and older experience one or more falls each year. While not every fall is serious, falls continue to be the leading cause of injury and death in this age group.
Falls occur for several reasons that become more common the older a person gets, but many are preventable.
The most common reason for falls? Home hazards, which account for 50-70% of falls. Here are some practices to adopt around the home to reduce the risk of falls.
- Ensure that living spaces, particularly stairways, are adequately lit. Install nightlights and keep flashlights within easy reach.
- Install grab bars in the bathroom – next to the toilet and in the bathtub area.
- Use a non-skid mat or adhesive strips in the shower or tub.
- Don’t overcrowd rooms with furniture that can make it difficult to easily move around.
- Clear electrical cords and clutter from traffic areas. Pick up loose items like books and toys.
- Secure area rugs.
- Wear supportive shoes with non-skid soles.
- Learn about the One Step Ahead Fall Prevention Program offered through King Country Emergency Medical Services/Medic One.
Families and caregivers can contribute to fall prevention by being observant of their older loved ones’ mobility and balance.
Regular vision and hearing checkups can reduce the likelihood of falls.
Review medications with a health care provider. The use of certain medications can pose a greater risk of falling due to drowsiness or vision impairment. Drug interactions can be problematic, and alcohol use can exacerbate side effects of some medicines.
It’s possible to improve fitness level regardless of age. Exercise can boost flexibility, increase strength, and enhance balance. It’s never too late to start, but if you’re new to exercise, it’s essential to consult your health care provider and to find an experienced trainer or class that caters to older adults. Check out Shape Up! 50+, another offering from Seattle & King County Public Health.
Here’s how exercise makes a difference in bone health:
- Weight training can help to increase bone density.
- Balance exercises like yoga and tai chi can improve the muscles that keep you stable and help you learn to move safely.
- Bicycling and swimming help to boost stamina and improve energy.
- Walking is one of the best weight-bearing exercises for improving bone density.
At SeaCare we want to help you live your best life at home. This means personalized care that prioritizes your comfort and safety. Call us to learn more.
Reference: Gerard Karsenty, Columbia University, 2017
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.