Regional bone-scan service launched

A new osteoporosis screening service has been introduced by the Western Health Board to combat the condition known as "the silent…

A new osteoporosis screening service has been introduced by the Western Health Board to combat the condition known as "the silent thief" which will affect one in three Irish women and one in 12 men during a lifetime.

Although osteoporosis has in the past been most common in older women, an increasing number of young people are at risk from it because of eating disorders and poor lifestyle habits. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weakened or fragile as a result of inadequate calcium over many years.

The new service, which is free to all women, will provide initial screening in district hospitals throughout the Western Health Board area and a more comprehensive test at Merlin Park Hospital in Galway.

The recently purchased DEXA unit at Merlin Park gives the most accurate measurement of bone-mineral density and will be complemented by a mobile PIXI unit to provide a service to rural communities.


The scans are painless and do not require any preparation. The results of the screening are forwarded to the referring GP who will then advise his patient where appropriate.

It is estimated that one in four Irish women will have suffered a fracture due to osteoporosis by the age of 60. In the Western Health Board area alone, more than 700 women over the age of 55 suffered a fracture last year, and with the ageing population of the region osteoporosis is increasing by about 10 per cent a year.

Introducing the screening service in Galway, the chairwoman of the health board, Ms Beverly Cooper Flynn TD, said that by making a number of healthy lifestyle choices to keep bones strong, the risk of developing the disease later in life could be reduced.

"Eating suitable foods such as dairy products is important to get calcium into the body. Regular exercise is also important to keep bones healthy and, as in many other cases, cigarette smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol should be avoided if you do not want to get osteoporosis."

As osteoporosis itself does not show any symptoms, it is important that people who feel they are at risk should have their bone strength measured.

Risk factors include early menopause, previous fracture, taking of steroid medicines for a long period, smoking and alcohol consumption. Ms Cooper Flynn said the start of the service was appropriate as the years 2000 to 2010 are the "Bone and Joint Decade" with the aim of improving the quality of life of people with musculoskeletal disorders worldwide.

The board has also prepared a leaflet which contains information on the prevention and treatment of the disease and will be widely circulated throughout the region.

The community nutrition and dietetic service of the WHB is using the introduction of the screening service to call on all women to combat the condition.

The richest sources of calcium in the Irish diet are milk, cheese and yoghurt. The Department of Health recommends that children, adults and the elderly need three servings from the milk group of foods every day, and teenagers and pregnant women five.

Calcium can also be found in beans, tinned sardines and salmon, green vegetables, white bread, nuts and seeds. However, these are much poorer sources of calcium than dairy foods.

Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is also important to keep bones healthy and may be found in foods such as fortified milk and oily fish.

Regular exercise is also important to keep bones healthy and strong as well as maintaining good muscle tone and heart function. Weight-bearing exercise such as brisk walking and running are the best.

Michelle McDonagh

Michelle McDonagh

Michelle McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family