Preventing osteoporosis - you can do it

About one in three women and one in 12 men aged over 50 has osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones, is sometimes called 'the silent epidemic'. The good news is that more and more of us are living healthily into our 80s and 90s. The bad news is that your bones reach their maximum density in your mid-20s, and start to get thinner from your mid-30s. After the menopause, bone loss speeds up, putting women at higher risk than men as they get older.

About one in three women and one in 12 men aged over 50 has osteoporosis. It greatly increases the risk of breaking a bone, particularly of 'fragility fractures' - that's a broken bone caused by a fall from sitting height (rather than, say, a car crash or falling off a ladder). Osteoporosis is responsible for over 300,000 broken bones a year in the UK.

While you may not be able to turn back the clock, there is a lot that you can do to reduce your risk of becoming one of these statistics. Don't take osteoporosis lying down!

The usual suspects

From April 2012, all GPs should be assessing anyone who's ever had a fragility fracture for osteoporosis. This may include doing a DEXA scan (like a simple X-ray) to check the thickness of your bones. If a parent has broken a hip, or you have rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease or went through the menopause before the age of 45, talk to your GP about whether you need a check too.

  • Smoking: guess what? Smoking increases your risk of osteoporosis as well as all the other harm it does. Visit or call 0800 0224332 for help.
  • Alcohol: drinking more than four units a week can increase your risk of osteoporosis. Stick to the recommended limits of two to three units a day with a couple of alcohol-free days a week.

You are what you eat

Over-50s should get about 1000 mg a day of calcium in their diets. A fruit or natural yoghurt, 1.5 ounces of cheddar, half a pint of milk, three ounces of tofu or sardines each have 300-400 mg of calcium. Curly kale, okra and watercress are also good sources. Mix and match to get your daily intake.

Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, but it's the one vitamin that's hard to get enough of from food alone because 80-90% of our vitamin D is absorbed through our skins from sunlight . It's important to avoid too much sun, which is a major risk for skin cancer - about 15 minutes a day in full sun with no sunscreen and bare face and arms from April to September is a safe compromise.

Best foot forward

Swimming is a fabulous form of exercise for strengthening muscles and ensuring a healthy heart, but it doesn't help reduce your risk of osteoporosis. That's because you need weight-bearing exercise to strengthen your bones, and in swimming your weight is supported by water. To protect your bones, walking, cycling, dancing and lifting light weights are all good. The brisker the walking, the better - work towards half an hour five times a week.

A fishy business

Tinned fish with bones (sardines, pilchards, salmon) gives two for the price of one - they're all high in both vitamin D and calcium. A tasty, economical supper that's good for your health as well!

Do I need tablets?

If you're short of vitamin D, your doctor may recommend a supplement of about 25 micrograms a day of vitamin D. Sometimes it's given in combination with calcium. If you have been found to have osteoporosis already, taking a medicine called a bisphosphonate can help stop it from getting worse. These tablets are usually taken daily, weekly or sometimes once a month. Although they're usually well tolerated, they can cause nasty indigestion if you don't follow the instructions. Talk to your pharmacist about how to avoid this.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.