Seriously, how dense are you? Approximately 70,000 New Zealanders and 1 million Australians suffer from the effects of osteoporosis on a daily basis. Are you one of them?
What is Osteoporosis?
The term osteoporosis literally means porous bone. It’s a bone disease that happens when your bones become thin and brittle, making you susceptible to fractures (osteoporotic fractures). Your body either lost too much bone, has a little left, but not enough for normal function, or both. As a consequence, your bones become weak and can break from a simple fall. In worst case scenarios, even a small bump or sneeze (yes, that’s right), can lead to fractures.
The first two decades of your life are filled with bone-building processes. It reaches its peak in your early twenties. That’s the time when your bone mass is most dense. When you reach middle age, there’s a struggle to balance bone building and bone breaking processes. As long as the balance is maintained, your risk of developing osteoporosis is very minimal. Sometimes, during middle age, the balance is lost because of a certain medical condition (causes of osteoporosis). When your body loses bone faster than it can build or replace it, osteoporosis occurs. For the record, we all loses a small amount of bone as we age.
How do you know if you’re developing osteoporosis? Here are some of the most common clues.
The sad part about osteoporosis is that there are no specific symptoms during the early stages. Symptoms appear when enough bone had been lost or weakened to cause signs and symptoms.
Notes on Prevention and Diagnosis
Uhm, you can’t do anything about the two decades you lost for beefing up your bone mass, but you can do something about the status of your bone density now. Click here for some useful tips on how to improve it.
The density of your bones can be measured through a machine that uses X-rays to determine the amount of minerals present in your bones. You lie on the table of the machine, and a scanner passes over you to visualise your bone mass. The machine is called a DXA machine. DXA stands for Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry. Don’t worry, only a few bones are scanned (usually your hip, spine, and wrist) and best of all, it’s painless. So stop being scared.
How early should you hop on the machine and get tested? For women who are not at risk for osteoporosis, DXA scan should start at age 65. After this age, retesting should be encouraged every 2 to 5 years. For men, it will depend on the applicable risk factors if present. Healthy men with no risk factors are advised to get tested at age 75. Still, it would be best to talk to your doctor first before you get scanned.
Common risk factors for osteoporosis:
Age: The older you are, the higher are your chances of developing osteoporosis.
Sex: Women tend to develop osteoporosis more than men. Women with earlier menopause should also get tested earlier (<45 years old) especially if you’re not on hormone replacement therapy.
Race: If you’re of Asian or Caucasian descent, you’re more likely to suffer from osteoporosis.
Family history: If your mother or father have osteoporosis, your risk increases.
Unhealthy lifestyle habits: If you smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, have a nutrient-deficient diet and/or have a sedentary lifestyle, then you should get tested earlier.
Medications: Certain medications such as corticosteroids can negatively affect bone health if taken long term. Talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking.
Medical conditions: If you have thyroid problems, an eating disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, liver or kidney disease.
Whether you’re male or female, if you have any of the risk factors above, you should talk to your doctor about getting a DXA scan as soon as possible.
Can osteoporosis be reversed or stopped?
According to bone experts and researchers, you can’t reverse osteoporosis completely. Its progression can be slowed down, though. What you can reverse are the consequences of osteoporosis. A more realistic goal would be to prevent osteoporotic fractures. You can accomplish this by getting enough calcium and vitamin D as well as other vitamins and minerals, and with certain medications where necessary. New bone can be built, but not enough to replace all the losses. Remember, our tips for improving bone density.
Is there an overdiagnosis of osteoporosis?
There has been some buzz going around the medical community that there’s an overdiagnosis of osteoporosis cases. This can all be traced to the misinterpretation of a certain journal article on bone fragility. The study was published in the British Medical Journal in 2015. In essence, the results of the study were skewed, and bone fragility was viewed as synonymous to osteoporosis which is incorrect. The author of the article views an overdiagnosis of bone fragility and not osteoporosis. The article was rejected and has now been corrected by the International Osteoporosis Foundation and 230 of its affiliated organisations. So, relax, as long as you consult the right doctor, you will receive the correct diagnosis and treatment. We have to warn you though, be careful of doctors who prescribe drugs for osteoporosis without a DXA scan.
The Bottom Line
The more bone you have deposited in the first two decades of your life, the lower your chances are of developing osteoporosis when you grow old. It’s certainly a preventable disease. Don’t wait for the signs to develop. Beyond those twenty years, there’s still much hope of curbing the disease itself provided that you do your part. If you have the risk factors or symptoms, please see your doctor and check out our tips for improving your bone density here.