Osteoporosis: Reducing the Risk

Health, Home & Family
on June 24, 2007

Nan Madden, a retired nurse, has seen firsthand the crippling effects of osteoporosis. In particular, she remembers an elderly patient who was nearly bedridden by the bone-weakening disease.

“She could barely walk,” recalls Madden, 65, who previously worked at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J. “She was trying not to complain, but you could just tell the pain she was in.”

Madden has confronted osteoporosis herself. When a bone scan five years ago revealed the beginnings of the disease in her own body, she began taking calcium and medicine for her bones. Then, in 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent a lumpectomy and radiation, and was required to take medication that can weaken bones.

Despite her medical setbacks, today the resident of Port St. Lucie, Fla., is a cancer survivor and her doctor says her bones are like those of a 30-year-old. She stays active by walking, exercising at the gym three times weekly and playing golf.

“Your emotional state is better when you exercise,” Madden says. “You feel good. You feel better about yourself.”

An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. One in two women and one in four men over the age of 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related bone break. The disease weakens the bones, making them susceptible to fractures from something as minor as a stumble or brush against furniture. But there are ways people can reduce their risk of osteoporosis.

“Osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones,’” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Slowly over time the loss of bone can occur, and you can have no symptoms until a bone breaks.”

Here are some suggestions for reducing your risk of osteoporosis:

  • Eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D

“Your body will actually dissolve pieces of the skeleton in order to supply calcium to the rest of the body,” she says. “So the skeleton is actually serving as a storage place for calcium and is used when there is no other reserve.”

Vitamin D, which is manufactured in the skin following direct exposure to sunlight, helps the body absorb calcium. Blatner recommends foods such as milk, soy milk and yogurt as rich sources of calcium and vitamin D. Many foods, such as orange juice and even hot chocolate, now are enriched with calcium. If your doctor recommends supplements, look for calcium citrate supplements, instead of calcium carbonate or other forms, because calcium citrate is more easily absorbed by the body.

Exercise Regular weight-bearing and resistance-training exercises are recommended to strengthen bones.

“Bones are basically living tissue that do become stronger with exercise,” Blatner explains. “Even if it’s something like walking, which is putting pressure on the bones, or dancing or using free weights, all those things that give you muscle also give you bone.”

Lead a healthy lifestyle Avoid smoking and excessive drinking.

Throughout our lives our bones maintain themselves by replacing weakened bones with new bone. Research shows smoking reduces bone reformation, and excessive drinkers are more prone to unhealthy eating and other lifestyle habits, as well as falls, Cosman says.

Visit your doctor Routine physical exams are especially important for women after menopause, when declining estrogen levels accelerate the rate at which bones weaken. Consider getting a bone-density scan, which determines bone strength, and be aware of other risk factors such as family history. By age 65, every woman should have had at least one density scan, Cosman says.

Madden no longer takes medicine for her bones. Her doctor says she no longer needs it. But she continues to take 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily, maintains her exercise regimen and hopes her active lifestyle will help her remain osteoporosis-free.