Your skeleton does more than just hold up your body and grow brittle with age. Bone is a dynamic living organ that changes throughout your life. Just like all the organs in your body it reacts to stresses and, even when you are no longer growing, it can repair itself. Unlike your heart and lungs (but similar to your hair), though, bones grow thinner with age. In some people bone loss is severe, and they develop a condition called osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis, or low bone mass, affects 44 million people aged 50 and older in the United States, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation. With this disease, bones become so thin and fragile that a minor bump or sneeze can cause a fracture. Each year, osteoporosis causes more than eight million fractures worldwide.
This bone disease is common enough that you probably know someone who has it. Maybe that someone is you. But there are some things about osteoporosis that you might find surprising:
Men Get it Too
Osteoporosis is most common in women, but it affects men too–about ten years later than women. Nearly 30 percent of all hip fractures occur in men, according to this study. And when they do break a hip, men are twice as likely as women to be disabled and die within a year of the injury.
Men in their fifties do not experience the rapid loss of bone mass that women do in the years following menopause. By age 65 or 70, however, men and women are losing bone mass at the same rate.— NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center
Men are also far less likely to get their bones checked than women because many still think of it as a women’s disease. But it is important that men know they are at risk for osteoporosis. In addition to age, the factors that most commonly lead to the disease in men include celiac disease, COPD, GERD, Prostate Cancer, and in some cases, low testosterone.
Bone Density is not the Same Thing as Bone Strength
With the naked eye, bone doesn’t look too complex–maybe a little like drift wood–but under a microscope, bone is an architectural wonder of pillars and caverns. With bone loss, the pillars thin out and the caverns become larger. This makes the bone lighter and more fragile, a condition referred to as low bone density. But this is only part of the story.
Bones also have other protective components like bone marrow, blood vessels, nerves, mineral crystals, and collagen fibers. And the health of all of these parts impacts the strength of bone. These things, together with factors like a bone’s ability to repair itself and a history of injury, make up what is called bone quality.
Bone strength, or its resistance to fracture, is not just about bone density, it’s also about bone quality. In other words, even when bone density is low, good bone quality can help prevent it from breaking.
Treatment is Highly Individualized
Just as bone itself is more complex than it seems, the diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis is not always straightforward. The path toward diagnosis begins with a full medical history and exam. And treatment, including the use of medications available to treat osteoporosis (video), can vary considerably.
Sometimes the first step in treatment is to take care of another underlying medical condition that contributes to osteoporosis, such as thyroid, kidney, and Paget’s diseases, or a hormone imbalance. Medications that are used to treat certain conditions like depression, seizure disorders, and cancer can also lead to poor bone health, so your doctor may want to make changes there.
Lifestyle plays an important role as well. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can result in unhealthy bones as can alcohol abuse and smoking. Strength and balance affect fracture risk as well as the risk of falling and may need to be addressed by a physical therapist. A nutritionist may also play an important role, as many vitamins and minerals are important for building and maintaining strong bones.
It is never too early to talk to your doctor about osteoporosis and bone health. When you are young and still building strong bones, nutrition, exercise, and healthy habits can often prevent the disease. And later, many of these same interventions can help you keep your bones healthy and prevent fracture. Call us today and we can help make a plan that fits you.
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