One of the questions I hear most often is, “how can I prevent osteoporosis?” It’s a great question, because it shows that people want to sidestep—instead of just treat—this common problem. The good news is there are ways to do exactly that.
Understand what osteoporosis is
The first step is to know how this condition works. Osteoporosis is a bone disorder where bones are less dense than normal, rendering them weak and less capable of withstanding life’s impacts and pressures (everything from rough grandkids to daily gravitational forces).
To be clear, osteoporosis isn’t the only time in life that bones diminish in strength and density, although it is more common in postmenopausal women due to the decrease in estrogen. Throughout life, bones naturally build up and break down. Osteoporosis is when the breakdown drastically outpaces the body’s ability to re-fortify those bones. The result is a new, super-susceptibility to debilitating fractures.
Learn what causes osteoporosis (so you can help prevent it)
The building and breaking down mentioned above is triggered by natural (and sometimes external/lifestyle) signals throughout our lives.
For example, one trigger is puberty, when, between ages 11 and 14, our bones build themselves up more than during any other three-year window of our whole lives. Another trigger is the practice of weight-bearing exercises. These signal to the body that it’s time to regenerate more bone material. One lifestyle-related signal that tells the body to break down bone density is alcohol consumption.
As you can see, there are some influences within your control, and others outside of your control.
Other factors contribute to your chances of developing osteoporosis, but don’t directly cause the condition. They include…
- Your gender. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, half of all women will break a bone in their lifetime because of osteoporosis. This is compared to 25% of all men. This is more likely for women than the chances of a heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined.
- Your age. Postmenopausal women are more susceptible to developing osteoporosis due to the decrease in estrogen.
- Your size. Smaller, slim people tend to develop osteoporosis more often because they carry less weight, which means their daily signals don’t include as much weight-bearing exercise.
- Your genes. Beyond weight, people with a petite skeletal frame are also predisposed to osteoporosis for the same reason—those weight-bearing movements are often missing from daily life, so the bones don’t receive that “bulk up” signal. Certain ethnicities are also genetically more likely to develop osteoporosis.
- Your history. If you drank a lot of milk, consumed tons of leafy greens, got adequate vitamin D, and perhaps even lifted weights a bit during the “building” phases of your life, then you’re less likely to experience osteoporosis later. Another medical history risk factor is ongoing steroid use, which diminishes your bone density over time.
- Your current lifestyle. Moderate to excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use contribute to a person’s chance of osteoporosis.
Ways to prevent or slow the progression of osteoporosis
From the list of osteoporosis causes and risk factors above, you can see what is within your control—and what’s not. The first thing to do to prevent osteoporosis is to give the body everything it needs to build, build, build.
Start with calcium supplements
- If you’re premenopausal, take 1000 milligrams of calcium a day with 800 IU of vitamin D.
- Once you’re postmenopausal, take 1200 milligrams of calcium per day with 800 IU of vitamin D.
- Anyone with osteopenia or osteoporosis need a full 1500 milligrams a day of calcium with 800 IU of vitamin D.
Remember that your body can only absorb 500-600 milligrams of calcium at a time, so space out your intake. The best, most effective way to get this amount of calcium (and other nutrients) is through a healthy, calcium-rich diet. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your calcium intake.
Move your body
Next, move your body. Engage in physical activity that activates your core at least four times per week. Because while bicep curls and calf raises are beneficial, they don’t strengthen the core, which is where the most devastating fractures eventually tend to appear.
Limit alcohol and tobacco use
Finally, remember the contributing factor of alcohol and tobacco use. They’re both linked to diminished bone density, so cut back or quit today.
Bone density scans after 65
Around this phase of the osteoporosis conversation, people always ask me about screenings or tests to catch osteoporosis early. And while prevention and early detection are always a good idea, typically, we only use bone density scans for people over 65 years old. Indications for bone density tests under 65 would include a history of multiple fractures or atypical fractures, chronic steroid use, or other factors that increase your risk of fracture. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.
A final word of osteo-wisdom
It is never too late to influence your own health. And that includes your bones. I’ve seen people stabilize their bone loss by having adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D and do weight bearing exercises.
So, if you’ve lost bone density, you can—without a doubt—slow or stop that bone reduction. And if you do need medication, there are effective treatments available to help you rebuild bones, too. So be encouraged that osteoporosis is not an indisputable part of anyone’s future. You can always influence your body’s ability to heal and maintain good health.
For more ways to live a healthy lifestyle and prevent conditions like osteoporosis, subscribe to the Scrubbing In blog.