A 'silent epidemic' of osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones, is one of the prices we pay for our ever-rising life expectancy. Your bones are constantly 'turning over' with bone being broken down by the body and more bone being laid down. Amazingly, this 'remodelling' means that most of your adult skeleton is replaced about every 10 years. However, your bones are at their strongest in about your mid-20s. From about your mid-30s, more bone is removed than laid down, meaning that your bones get thinner and more prone to breaking. This imbalance gets more marked after the menopause as your levels of the female hormone oestrogen drop. But there is good news too - simple lifestyle changes can help fight this bone loss.
Osteoporosis - who gets it?
Osteoporosis gets more common as you get older - it affects about one in three women and one in 12 men over 50. Risk factors for osteoporosis include chronic joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis; being underweight; a poor diet or conditions that affect your bowel, like Crohn's disease; having a parent who broke a hip; being immobile; going through the menopause early (under 45); and taking steroid tablets regularly.
Smoking - don't do it for your bones' sake!
As if all the other risks weren't enough to put you off, smoking increases your risk of osteoporosis. So does alcohol, especially if you drink more than four units of alcohol a day.
What are the symptoms?
Many people with osteoporosis don't know they have it until they break a bone. Clearly anyone can break bones if they're hit by a bus - but if you have osteoporosis, you can break a bone with a minor trip or fall from sitting height. The most common bones affected are your hip, wrist and shoulder.
Your spine can also be affected by osteoporosis. The spine is made up of 24 small bones, or vertebrae, connected by tough ligaments and muscles and with your spinal cord running through the middle. In osteoporosis, the front part of the vertebra (called the body) can get crushed, making the round bone wedge-shaped. This contributes towards losing height and a hunched appearance of the back. It can also cause a lot of pain, often worse when you stand or walk, and difficulty in twisting.
Bones - how can you help?
Exercise is key for healthy bones, and we're talking lifelong, not just starting in your 50s or 60s. To help prevent osteoporosis, it needs to be weight-bearing, so swimming doesn't count. But swimming supports your weight and lets you exercise your muscles without straining your joints so it's perfect for joints! That makes it perfect for conditions like osteoarthritis. Try a combination of brisk walking and swimming to help both if you can.
Getting enough vitamin D, which mainly comes from sunshine, can be a challenge - eggs and oily fish are good sources. The Department of Health recommends that over-65s, and people who don't get much sun, take a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement every day.
Calcium is also important for strong bones - dairy or soya products and fish with bones are good sources.
Could I have osteoporosis?
The best way to test your bone density is with a painless scan called a DEXA scan. Anyone over 50 who's broken a bone after a minor fall should have one. If you think you're at high risk for any of the reasons above, speak to your GP about whether you need a DEXA scan.
Do I need medication?
For mild thinning of the bones, regular medication isn't necessary, although you do need good levels of calcium and vitamin D. If you're taking medicines like steroids, which can thin the bones, or if you have more severe osteoporosis, medication is likely to be advised. This is often taken as a daily, weekly or sometimes monthly tablet. These medicines can cause indigestion - you need to take them with a full glass of water on an empty stomach, and stand or sit upright for half an hour afterwards. If you get side effects with one, speak to your doctor - they may be able to give a different one, or give a tablet to reduce indigestion.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.