July 14, 2008

Seniors Should Bone Up on Osteoporosis

DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: Can a person in their early 50s have osteoporosis? When I broke my wrist last month, the doctor who treated me told me the fracture may be a result of osteoporosis. Is this possible, and if so, what can I do about it? - BONY BRENDA

DEAR BRENDA: For years, osteoporosis has been considered a disease that affects only the elderly, but the fact is more than half of all Americans over age 50 are at risk. Here's what you should know.

Osteoporosis is a bone-thinning disease often called the "silent disease" because most people don't know they have it until they break a bone. In the United States today, around 10 million people age 50 and older already have osteoporosis, while another 34 million have osteopenia - which means they are at risk of developing it. But the good news is that osteoporosis is both preventable and treatable.

Are you at risk?

Most people, by the time they reach their late 30s, gradually start losing some of their bone mass, but for women menopause is the time when this process really accelerates. Bone loss for men occurs much more slowly. However, by age 75, osteoporosis is as common in men as it is in women. (Tip: Check your personal risk at www.yourdiseaserisk.com; click on "osteoporosis.") Here are the factors that increase your risk:

Gender: Women are four times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis.

Age: Women over age 50 and men over 65 are at greatest risk, and it increases with age.

Ethnicity: Caucasian and Asian women.

Body size: People who are very thin or small-boned.

Family history: Osteoporosis runs in families.

Hormones: Low estrogen levels due to missing menstrual periods or too early menopause (before age 45).

Low calcium: A lifetime diet low in calcium and vitamin D.

Eating disorders: A history of anorexia or bulimia.

Medications: Certain drugs including glucocorticoids (steroids) which are used to control diseases such as arthritis and asthma; some anti-seizure medications; blood thinners; some diuretics; some antidepressants; antacids that contain aluminum; proton pump inhibitors; some medicines that treat endometriosis; some cancer drugs; and too much thyroid hormone for an underactive thyroid. (Note: If you're taking any of these medicines, talk to your doctor about what can be done to protect your bones.)

Sedentary lifestyle: Inactivity weakens bones.

Smoking: It robs your bones of calcium and lowers your estrogen levels.

Alcohol: More than two drinks a day can interfere with your body's ability to absorb calcium.

Boning up

It's never too late to help your bones (see www.nof.org). A good first step in preventing and treating osteoporosis is to get screened. For women, that should start around menopause (if you're not taking estrogen), or for anyone who has broken a bone after age 50 or has other risk factors. All women over 65 and men over 70 should be tested every two years (for women it's covered by Medicare). Screening for osteoporosis is a simple, painless, bone density test which takes about five minutes.

Here are some lifestyle changes that can help you protect your bones:

Boost your calcium: Those older than 50 should get at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily. The best sources are calcium-rich foods such as dairy products (low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurt), fortified orange juice, broccoli, sardines, salmon, fortified cereals, almonds and soybeans. If you can't get enough calcium through your diet, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.

Take vitamin D: Your body needs vitamin D to absorb all that calcium. Everyone older than 50 should take a daily vitamin that contains at least 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D (600 IU after age 70).

Exercise: At any age, weight-bearing exercises such as walking, stair climbing, dancing and strength training with weights or resistance bands three or four times a week can significantly improve your bone health.

Other tips: Don't smoke, don't drink more than one alcoholic drink per day and limit your caffeine intake to two or three cups of coffee, tea or caffeinated soda a day.


If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, there a variety of medications available today that can slow or stop its progress, including a new once-a-year treatment called Reclast (see reclast.com). Your doctor can help determine which drug is appropriate for your particular case.

Jim Miller is a regular contributor to NBC's "Today" show and author of a book titled "The Savvy Senior." Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. {Corrections:} {Status:}

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