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Osteoporosis – are you at risk?

A mature woman looks thoughtfully at the camera
Nearly one in 10 Australians over 50 develop osteoporosis or osteopenia.

We don’t always give our bones much thought. Hidden out of sight and mind, it’s often not until we break one that we think about their health.

But remembering to factor bone health into our lifestyle can help prevent a potentially-debilitating condition that nearly one in 10 people over 50 develop - osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia.

So what exactly is osteoporosis, who is at risk of developing the condition, and how can it be prevented?

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition where our bones become weak, thin, and brittle. The word ‘osteoporosis’ literally means porous bones. It occurs when our bones lose minerals, such as calcium, faster than our body can replace them.

Having osteoporosis makes our bones more prone to fractures, and even a minor bump or fall can lead to a break. A fall that would usually cause only bruising could lead to a hip or spine fracture for someone with osteoporosis. After the first fracture, there is a 2-4 times greater risk of another fracture occurring within 12 months. In addition, the risk of fracture rapidly increases with every new fracture – this is known as the ‘cascade effect’.

Osteoporosis also reduces our body’s ability to repair after a fracture, which can lead to chronic pain, disability, and reduced independence. Some people can develop a stoop or hump, a loss of height, or other postural changes when osteoporosis affects the spine.

Brittle bones and the fractures that follow can have a serious impact on our health, independence, and quality of life. Supporting bone health through lifestyle strategies, and early detection through bone mineral density scans are essential steps in reducing the risk of osteoporosis as we age.

Close up of a carer resting their hands on an elderly woman’s hands, as she rests on her walking cane.

Bone mineral density and osteoporosis

We use the phrase ‘bone mineral density’ or ‘bone mass’ to describe the amount of minerals in our bones. Once we’re in our mid-thirties, we can’t increase our bone density – we can either maintain it or lose it. If our calcium intake doesn’t meet our body’s needs, our bone density steadily reduces over time.

Osteopenia occurs when our bone mineral density is lower than normal, but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis. If untreated, it can progress to osteoporosis. Bone density is assessed through a bone scan, usually of the hip and spine.

How do bones become porous?

As our bones are living things, they’re in constant need of repair. We need a steady supply of calcium through our dietary intake to keep up with the repair process.

While calcium is commonly associated with bones, our bodies use it for other things too. Calcium is needed to keep our hearts beating, our muscles moving, and a range of other critical functions.

If it’s a choice between keeping our heart beating or our bones strong, our body will choose the option that keeps us alive. This means when we don’t get enough calcium from our diet, our body removes calcium from our bones to support the other important functions.

Think of your bones like a ‘calcium bank account’ - if we’re not making regular calcium deposits (through consumption of healthy calcium-rich food and drinks), our body will withdraw calcium from our bones. The goal is to keep our calcium bank account in balance.

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

There aren’t any obvious symptoms for osteoporosis. For many people, they only discover they have the condition once they’ve had a bone fracture.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of the factors associated with developing osteoporosis, and where possible, take steps towards preventing it.

Women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, and it is most common in adults over 50.

Other factors that can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis include:

  • A family history of the condition
  • Low calcium intake
  • Low vitamin D levels
  • Low levels of physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Being underweight or overweight.

Certain medications and medical conditions can also impact bone health.

It’s important to discuss your risk factors with your doctor, especially if you’re over 50. An early diagnosis of osteopenia or osteoporosis means you and your health care provider can act to slow bone loss, reduce the risk of fractures, and keep your bones strong.

A mature woman smiles as she does weight-bearing exercise in the gym

Why does osteoporosis affect more women than men?

Both men and women can get osteoporosis, but it affects four times as many women than men. This is largely due to hormone changes during menopause.

The hormone oestrogen plays an important role in maintaining bone mineral density. When oestrogen levels drop during menopause, bone mass reduces too. On average, women lose 10 per cent of their bone mass in the first five years following menopause. If a woman reaches menopause with reduced bone mineral density, the risk of osteoporosis increases.

How can you prevent osteoporosis?

There are three main factors to prevent osteoporosis - weight-bearing physical activity, calcium, and vitamin D intake.

Calcium provides the building blocks to maintain strong bones, vitamin D acts like a catalyst to transfer calcium to our bones, and weight-bearing physical activity supports the bone-building process. Find out how to get enough calcium, vitamin D, and exercise.

Maintaining a healthy weight, managing your alcohol intake, and not smoking are other things you can do to reduce your risk of osteoporosis.

While there is no cure for osteoporosis, the same strategies used to prevent it may help to slow down its progression. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help to minimise bone loss.

Osteoporosis is a largely preventable disease. Consider the small healthy lifestyle changes you can make to support and maintain your bone health throughout adult years.

Other links

Osteoporosis Australia

Steps to take now to prevent falls as you age

How to keep your bones healthy at any age

Last updated: 19 June 2019