Few things are scarier than the idea of a body that was previously in sound health, can one day be discovered to be slowly betraying its owner. Osteoporosis is one of these conditions, wherein years of unnoticeable neglect can suddenly occur and prevent those afflicted from living their lives as fully as before.
Brittle bones don’t happen overnight or for no reason. However, osteoporosis is to a large extent preventable and somewhat treatable through lifestyle changes. Some individuals are indeed more at risk than others, but there are some small things we can do every day to prevent it from happening.
Who Should Worry About Osteoporosis?
The most obvious and well-known risk factor for osteoporosis or low bone density, which is a closely related condition, is age. Anyone over 50 years old should be aware of the possibility, while women are particularly likely to be affected. The disease is more prevalent in those with a history of alcohol or tobacco abuse, as well as those with a family history of fractures. Hormonal imbalances – low testosterone levels in men, menopause or never having given birth in women – also play a big role. While not a contributing factor to osteoporosis by itself, anyone who has suffered a broken bone as they become older may have lower than normal bone density. The test for this is non-invasive and takes a little time, so getting checked is recommended for anyone over 65 years old.
However, two major risk factors are under everyone’s control, namely nutrition and exercise. Especially, if someone has one or more of the other characteristics of those likely to be affected by a decrease in bone mass. Taking care of these basic elements can prevent debilitating and possibly dangerous broken bones later in life.
Amateur tennis players who play for three hours per week or more tend to have significantly stronger bones in their playing arms, while people who get little exercise, especially after 50, lose bone mass much faster. Exercise need not mean running marathons or lifting dumbbells. Milder activities such as walking or gardening will also have a beneficial effect. In fact, there is evidence wherein women who compete in sports at a professional level often have lower estrogen levels, increasing their chances of developing osteoporosis.
Aside from the obvious role calcium plays in maintaining strong bones, vitamin D is crucially important. In fact, lighter-skinned people and those living in higher latitudes are more at risk of developing osteoporosis, simply because their skin produces less vitamin D as it’s exposed to sunlight.
Vitamin D, whether obtained through time spent in the sun or foods such as eggs, dairy or oily fish, plays an essential role in allowing the intestinal tract to absorb sufficient calcium. Put another way, no amount of calcium in a diet will help much if a person is deficient in vitamin D.
As far as calcium goes, the daily amount recommended for older individuals translates into a liter or quart of milk per day, but other sources are also available. White beans, sardines with the bones in and numerous vegetables can all contribute to meeting a person’s calcium requirements. Supplements containing calcium, vitamins D and K as well as other nutrients essential for bone health are also available, although it would be a good idea to seek medical advice if regularly taking medication or other supplements.
Bone mass tends to be added only during the first 20 years of someone’s life, then remains steady for the next 40 or so years, then naturally begins to decline. This is normal, but osteoporosis, a very common disease, means that this happens at a rate that places people at elevated risk of a fracture that may never heal properly. Once bone health is compromised, treatment options are limited. It is far better to take care of your bones while it is still in good shape, which can often make the difference between becoming bedridden or confined to a wheelchair later, and remaining active well past 70.