What is osteoporosis? Can it be prevented?

As we age, our bodies are not as healthy as they were when we were younger. Muscles are slower to react. Joints are not as fluid as before. And bones are weaker than they were in our youth.

Osteoporosis is a bone disease most commonly found in older women, particularly those of Caucasian or Asian descent. Literally translated as “porous bone,” osteoporosis happens when bone density has decreased and the bones have become brittle. Unfortunately, the early symptoms of osteoporosis are easy to miss, like back pain or stooped posture. This is why most people don’t find out that they have the disease until they break a bone.

Older blonde woman using walker gets help from younger woman.

Your bones are constantly changing and creating new bone cells. When you’re younger and growing, your body creates more bone than it loses. This shifts as we reach our mid-20s, when our bodies slow down the process and we’ve reached our peak bone mass, or bone thickness.

By the time we’re in our 50s and 60s, the process has reversed, and we’re losing more bone cells than we’re producing. This is why the Mayo Clinic points out that your likelihood of developing osteoporosis depends on how well your bones were developed early on: “The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have ‘in the bank’ and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age.”

While age and genetics play a large part, other factors can also increase your chances of developing osteoporosis — and keep in mind, this is not just when you are “old,” but as you age from your 20s onward.

  • Nutrition. Remember those “milk does a body good” campaigns? Lifelong intake of calcium and vitamin D is essential for strong bones. Eat a diet without those two essential ingredients, and you’re far more likely to have weak bones as you age. This also applies to people with eating disorders and low body weight; one of the long-term effects of not eating enough and malnutrition can be brittle bones.
  • Medications. Long-term use of any medication can be a red flag, but steroids in particular have been associated with bone loss, including prednisone and cortisone. Prescriptions for such conditions as seizures, depression and cancer all have a higher risk for bone strength and density.
  • Lifestyle choices. Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption contribute to bone weakness, possibly because they interfere with calcium absorption. Being sedentary can also lead to weaker bones.
Photograph of glass of milk and bowl of yogurt surrounded by fresh fruits, vegetables and grains.

So how can you reduce your chances of developing osteoporosis? Improving your diet is certainly key. Remember that there are plenty of ways besides milk to get calcium, like broccoli and even salmon. Check out this list at WebMD: they have 12 foods to boost your calcium intake.

If you’re smoking or drinking, think long and hard about quitting altogether, or at least reducing your intake. (With alcohol, a 2005 study showed that drinking more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day increased the risk of bone weakness and fractures.) And be sure to talk to your doctor (or doctors) about the risks or side effects of any medication you’re taking, especially if you’re taking more than one.

There are many benefits to even light exercise, especially for aging adults: Reduced arthritis pain. A healthier heart. Improved balance (and a lower risk for falling). The National Osteoporosis Foundation notes that both weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises contribute to strong bones. Weight-bearing exercise is anything that involves your body moving while fighting gravity. This can range from taking a daily walk to weekly dance classes, or running on a regular basis.

Black man working out with weights.

Muscle strengthening usually is done by lifting weights, but don’t feel pressure to pick up the 250-pound barbell at the gym — the best results come from as little as 2-3 pounds with multiple repetitions. Yoga and Pilates have also been shown to improve muscle strength, but be more cautious if you’re concerned that you may have osteoporosis; some of the poses that involve forward bends can be dangerous if your spine is weak.

If you’re worried about the risk of osteoporosis, talk to your doctor first. She can evaluate your risk factors and may change your medications or recommend a bone density scan, to evaluate how strong your bones are. If she recommends an exercise regimen, consult a physical therapist. A PT can develop an exercise program just for you, to help you build muscle, increase bone strength, and improve your balance, while making sure that you are safe.

Find a Physiquality physical therapist to help with your osteoporosis using our clinic locator below.

The Mayo Clinic. Osteoporosis. June 21, 2013.

Fact sheet: Preventing osteoporosis. U.S. National Library of Medicine, September 3, 2012.

Bone health for life: Easy-to-read information for patients and families. National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, November 2011.

National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Morrison, Mary Saloka. Physical therapist’s guide to osteoporosis. American Physical Therapy Association.

Taylor, Rebecca Buffum. 12 foods to boost bone health. WebMD, April 30, 2009.

Kanis, John, Helena Johansson, Olaf Jonell, et al. Alcohol intake as a risk for fracture. Osteoporosis International, July 2005.

“k9093-1” by USDAgov is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and taken by Peggy Greb.

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