Osteoporosis: the facts

Osteoporosis is a medical condition that makes bones more porous or brittle

Usually people suspect osteoporosis only after they have broken a bone from falling.  Photograph: iStockphoto

Usually people suspect osteoporosis only after they have broken a bone from falling. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

What is it?

Osteoporosis is a medical condition that makes bones more porous or brittle.

This causes them to break more easily than healthy bones. Osteopenia, the precursor of osteoporosis, is a medical condition in which the protein and mineral content of the bones is reduced but less severely than osteoporosis.

What causes it?

Up to 70 per cent of bone density and risk of breaking bones is caused by genetics so knowing your family history is important.

Changing hormones – particularly the loss of oestrogen after the menopause – reduces bone density in women, resulting in one in two women over 50 having what’s medically described as an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.

The loss of testosterone in men can also be a factor in the development of osteoporosis and current figures point to one in four men over 50 having an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.

Smoking and excessive alcohol intake also impact on bone density. Over-exercise, a diet low in calcium and vitamin D and certain medications such as steroids and hormonal medications used to treat prostate and breast cancer increase your risk of developing osteoporosis. How do I know I have it? Usually people suspect osteoporosis only after they have broken a bone from falling.

A bone density or DXA (Dual energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scan is the standard diagnostic tool used to confirm whether the cause is osteoporosis. This scan measures the calcium content of the bones in the spine and hips.

How do I treat it?

Once diagnosed, osteoporosis is usually treated with bisphosphonates, drugs which slow down the bone-thinning process, reducing the risk of breaking bones. Is it preventable? Yes, most experts agree that a diet high in calcium and vitamin D combined with adequate sunshine (a good source of vitamin D) and weight-bearing exercise will keep bones healthy and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

However, it is recommended that those with a family history of osteoporosis should get tested for the condition in their 40s or 50s so that they can prevent further bone density loss.

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