Bone is a living tissue that is built, broken down to release calcium for metabolic processes with any unused calcium reabsorbed back into your body every day of your life. Our bones are what hold us together. They protect our vital organs, support us when we move and act as a stored supply of essential minerals such as calcium and phosphorous for our body.
Bone is made up of collagen and calcium, a combination that makes bones strong enough to carry us and flexible enough to withstand impact.
Most bone growth happens in childhood and during teenage years. That’s when we add new bone faster than it’s taken away, making our bones longer and stronger. The scales start to tip in our 30s. From then on, our bodies generally lose bone faster than they replace it.
It’s natural to lose bone density as we age. Unfortunately, that loss can be so excessive that it leads to osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones and makes them more likely to break. It’s diagnosed when bones lose their strength and density, breaking more easily following a minor bump or fall. The disease itself isn’t painful, although fractures can be.
Osteoporosis carries significant health risks, and has few, if any, obvious symptoms. Often the only sign you have osteoporosis is when you break a bone.
Osteoporosis can’t be cured and most importantly it can be treated but most importantly it can be prevented
Why does bone health matter?
It’s important to keep your bones as strong as possible to prevent fractures later in life. The lifestyle choices we make at a younger age can have a direct impact on our risk of contracting osteoporosis.
Around one million people in Australia are currently living with osteoporosis. Another six million have low bone density (also called osteopenia) which makes osteoporosis more likely.
If you have osteoporosis, you’re more likely to break a bone, and it doesn’t need a serious accident for that to happen. Even a simple knock can lead to a fracture for someone with osteoporosis. In severe cases, coughing or sneezing can break a bone.
Thousands of people are admitted to hospital every year with fractures that had minimal trauma. This commonly happens in the hip, wrist and spine.
Keeping your bones strong and healthy can help prevent osteoporosis.
Are you at risk of getting osteoporosis?
Women are more likely to get osteoporosis than men, but men can still be at risk.
Your risk rises due to:
- Family history
- Inadequate intake of calcium
- Low vitamin D
- Existing medical issues
- Lack of exercise (weight bearing in particular)
- Excessive drinking
- Being underweight
Age - Your risk rises as you age. Osteoporosis affects one in four Australian women over the age of 75. Worldwide, one in three women over the age of 50, and one in five men, will suffer a fracture due to osteoporosis.
Sex - Around six percent of women have osteoporosis, compared with 1.5 percent of men. Women aged 75 and over are three times more likely than men to have osteoporosis, but almost a quarter of all people with osteoporosis are men.
Women lose oestrogen rapidly during menopause. As oestrogen levels drop, bones lose calcium and minerals at a faster rate. This continues for several years after menopause.
Men lose testosterone as they age, which also affects bone strength. This happens more gradually so their risk of osteoporosis is lower.
The risk of dying following a fracture is greater for men than for women.
Family history - Bone health can be inherited. If a close relative – one of your parents or siblings – has osteoporosis you’re likely to be more at risk.
Lack of calcium - Calcium helps your blood clot, your muscles contract and your heart keep beating. If you don’t get enough calcium from your diet, your body starts leaching it from your bones. The older you are, the more calcium you need.
Low vitamin D - You need vitamin D for your body to absorb calcium. Sunlight is a great source so if you stay indoors a lot or are covered up when in the sun, your vitamin D levels could be compromised.
Existing medical issues - Some medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and coeliac disease can increase your risk.
Lack of exercise - Lack of exercise makes it far more likely you’ll suffer from osteoporosis. Bones get stronger the more you use them.
Smoking - There’s a direct link between smoking and reduced bone density. Smoking also increases your risk of having a fracture.
Excessive drinking - Heavy drinking can lead to bone loss.
Being underweight - Being underweight can also increase the risk of suffering from osteoporosis.
Take this quick quiz to Know your Risk
What you can do to prevent osteoporosis
Eat the right foods, stay active and lead a healthy lifestyle and you’ll reduce your risk of suffering osteoporosis.
Bones get stronger when you use them. You can build bone strength through weight-bearing exercise. Anything is better than nothing, but ideally you want to aim for at least three times for a week for 30 minutes more.
Combine weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises for maximum benefit. Muscles pull on your bones, so the harder your muscles pull, the stronger your bones become. Exercise at least three times a week, vary your routine and try to progressively increase impact levels.
Remember to check with your doctor or health professional before you make any significant changes to your exercise regime.
Follow a healthy diet
Our bones need a range of minerals and protein. Dairy products provide a rich source of calcium and protein along with magnesium and if fortified, vitamin D. Following the guidelines for a healthy diet will ensure you get the dairy you need to meet your calcium needs.
The daily recommended amount of dairy for adults is 2.5 serves a day. This rises to four serves a day for women over 50 and 3.5 serves a day for men over 70.
A single cup of milk, two slices of cheese or three quarters of a cup of yogurt is a single serve. And if you’re worried about your weight, low fat dairy options generally include as much calcium as full fat varieties.
If you don’t eat dairy, you can also find calcium in soy, tofu, bony fish (tinned salmon or sardines) nuts, seeds and leafy vegetables. But be wary of choosing plant alternatives. In order to get the same amount of calcium as a single glass of milk you’d have to eat five cups of cooked broccoli, five cups of red beans or 165g of almonds. And don’t forget about nut milks. These contain minimal calcium naturally so make sure you choose one that has had calcium added. Check the ingredients list for calcium carbonate to be sure.
Vegans might need to consider taking supplements.
Spend more time outdoors
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and sunlight is the best source. Spending a few minutes outdoors in summer without sunscreen, on most days of the week, should get you enough vitamin D. Do this before 10am or after 3pm to avoid damaging your skin.
You’ll need to spend longer outside in winter and remember to expose your skin to allow the rays to reach your skin
High alcohol intake can damage bone-forming cells. People with osteoporosis who drink more than two units of alcohol a day have a 40 percent increased risk of fractures.
Smoking can damage the cells that build bone. Get help to quit.
Watch your weight
Maintain a healthy weight. If you weight too much or too little, your risk of osteoporosis increases.
I’ve got osteoporosis what should I do?
Your doctor will decide if you need medication to treat your osteoporosis. Even if you do take medication it’s important to also follow guidelines for healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise.
Exercise is very important when you’ve got osteoporosis. You need to exercise more, not less. These helpful videos from the UK’s Royal Osteoporosis Society offer suggested exercises you can do at home:
The Bone Clinic Ask the Expert video on importance of exercise (Australia) – 8 mins
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