Like breast cancer, osteoporosis is usually thought of as a “woman’s disease”. While it is less common in men (2 million American men over age 50 have it verses 5 million American women) it is by no means rare and it is arguably more deadly. In fact, more men than women die within a year of fracturing their hip. Similar to breast cancer, osteoporosis in men is typically more advanced by the time of diagnosis because, unlike women, men are not routinely tested for the disease. So it may be that fractures in older men are more serious when they do occur. This has been my observation – but more on that later.
Though they have larger, stronger bones, men get osteoporosis for many of the same reasons women do. Certain medications (including steroids, anti-convulsants and immunosuppressive drugs) can thin bones as can unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, eating a poor diet, inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption and chronic stress. Similar to estrogen’s protection of bones, testosterone is also important for optimal bone density, so low testosterone levels can also lead to male osteoporosis.
When I worked as a wellness director for a retirement community, it was my observation that the fractures that occurred in the older male residents (typically resulting from falls) were quite serious and debilitating. While the older female residents were more likely to suffer a fractured wrist or metatarsal (long bone in the foot), the men were more likely to fracture major bones. One male resident even broke his femur – the largest, most dense bone in the human body.
Furthermore, many of the older women I consulted with were taking osteoporosis medications while few of the men were.
Unfortunately, osteoporosis is often called a “silent disease” in that those that suffer from it typically only become aware of it after a fracture. Women at least may have some warning, as bone mineral density screening has become common post-menopause. Routine screening for osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) in men – before they fracture- might prevent many men from suffering full-blown osteoporosis as well. Other than fractures, early warning signs include loss of height and severe back pain.