Osteoporosis is a common disease that affects about 54 million Americans. It’s a disease that cause the weakening of the bones, and, when bones are weak, they are more likely to fracture (break).
Osteoporosis does not cause symptoms, so people with it don’t know they have it until they break a bone from a fall or even mild impact. We call these “fragility fractures” because people with healthy bones shouldn’t break a bone that easily.
The major causes of osteoporosis include old age, having a family history of the disease, decreased physical activity, sex steroid deficiency (namely, estrogen and testosterone), chronic use of glucocorticoids (steroids that treat medical conditions like asthma or rheumatoid arthritis) or medications used for acid reflux, and excessive production of thyroid hormones. Other common causes may include smoking, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and some other hormonal and skeletal disorders.
While postmenopausal women are at the highest risk of having osteoporosis, men are affected by the disease as well. Some men get osteoporosis because their bodies do not produce enough testosterone.
To help prevent osteoporosis, you need to exercise and nourish your bones throughout your life. It’s best to avoid smoking altogether, be active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to 1-2 drinks a day at most, and do your best to keep from falling.
Calcium and vitamin D are vital nutrients for your body, especially for bone health, so it’s important to eat foods with enough calcium and vitamin D. Calcium sources include dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese), green leafy vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, spinach and broccoli), certain nuts and breads and foods that have added calcium such as juices, cereals and soy products.
Foods with adequate supplies of vitamin D include fortified milk, fatty fish, cereals with added vitamin D and cod liver oil. Spending time in the sun can help with vitamin D levels; just be sure to limit exposure so as to not increase your risk for skin cancer.
While it’s best to get these nutrients from the food you eat, if you don’t believe you are getting enough, talk to your healthcare provider about taking calcium and vitamin D supplements. However, premenopausal women need less than postmenopausal women. Taking too much calcium or vitamin D can cause problems and side effects.
Treatment for osteoporosis is typically with medicines called bisphosphonates, which slow down or prevent bone loss. If those medicines do not help or if they cause intolerable side effects, other medications are available. Bone density tests check if osteoporosis medicines are working. It’s important to work with your healthcare provider on a holistic treatment plan.
If you have a known family history or are concerned about your risk for osteoporosis, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider.
Amit Joshi, MD, is board certified in both geriatric and internal medicine. He practices at Overlake Clinics Primary Care – Issaquah.