You wouldn't think thinning bones could be deadly. And yet it's estimated that more postmenopausal women die due to complications from osteoporosis than from breast cancer, heart attacks and strokes combined.
Dr. Norman Nelson of Health Care for Women in Salinas notes that when older women break a hip — usually due to fragile bones caused by osteoporosis — "one-third will go home, one-third will go into a nursing home and never leave, and one-third will die."
And with baby boomers getting older, most health care professionals are bracing themselves for an epidemic of osteoporosis in the coming years.
Not long ago, osteoporosis was regarded as a natural consequence of aging. We build most of our bone mass before age 30; as we age, bones tend to lose calcium, and become thinner and more likely to break.
Times and attitudes have changed, however, and now physicians are actively encouraging their patients to be proactive about bone health before problems set in.
Women are more likely than men to have osteoporosis because they tend to have smaller, slimmer bones, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. The estrogen that protects bones during women's child-bearing years vanishes with menopause, putting older women at risk. It's estimated that half of all women over 50 will experience a fracture due to osteoporosis. The good news is that despite the grim statistics, there's much that can be done to shore up bone density.
Be aware of your risk factors. Eight in 10 people diagnosed with osteoporosis are women. Especially at risk are women who weigh less than 127 pounds, drink excessively or smoke, have a diet lacking in calcium and vitamin D, or have female relatives with osteoporosis or fractures. (Osteoporosis tends to run in families, and researchers are in the process of identifying the genes that cause the problem.) Women who have had to take certain medications, such as steroids or anti-seizure drugs, for several years are also more likely to have osteoporosis.
In addition, says Nelson, women who lack an adequate supply of estrogen are at risk, such as those who have gone through early menopause . For the same reason, thin women are more likely to have it because "they don't have enough body fat to keep the estrogen cycle going," says Nelson.
· Get screened. Women 65 and older should be screened for osteoporosis and have a bone density scan; those who have risk factors should be screened even earlier. A bone density scan is a low-level X-ray that is a quick and easy way to see bone mass. Scans are widely available at doctors' offices, hospitals and clinics, including Health Care for Women in Salinas (www.hcfw.com).
· Eat a healthy diet. Barbara Quinn, a registered dietician at CHOMP and Health Matters columnist, says adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D are of primary importance in bone health — but other nutrients are also crucial.
Adults should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day; after age 50, 1,200 milligrams per day is recommended for women, according to the National Institutes for Health. Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, is also a must. It can be obtained through food or supplements, or by exposure to the sun several times a week for 15 minutes. If you take a supplement, Quinn says it's best to take one that contains both calcium and vitamin D for best results.
In recent years, doctors have determined the body also needs protein for bone health, as well as potassium and vitamins C and K, Quinn says. Protein can be found in dairy foods, while the other nutrients are plentiful in fruits and vegetables.
A well-balanced diet is recommended. "What works really well is to follow the DASH diet," Quinn says, referring to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension plan. The plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods and a diet low in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol. Although DASH was originally intended to lower blood pressure, it is also appropriate for good bone health, she says... read more