What Is Osteoporosis? Symptoms, Risk Factors, and More

Osteoporosis is a silent disease that causes bones to become thin and weak, leading to an increased risk of fractures. Men and women over the age of 50 are especially at risk for the serious health issues that weak bones can cause.

Every year, 1.5 million Americans suffer a fracture – most often of the hip, spine, or wrist — due to osteoporosis. In older adults, fractures can result from minor bumps, falls, bending, lifting, or even coughing. In fact, hip fractures are a leading cause of loss of independence and death in the elderly.

What Is Osteoporosis?

Bone is a living tissue that breaks down and rebuilds its structure throughout life. Osteoporosis occurs when old bone isn’t replaced as quickly by new bone, resulting in a loss of bone mass. Since bone loss builds up over time, our bones become weaker as we age.

Bone mass that is not low enough to be considered osteoporosis is a condition called osteopenia. It is possible to have osteopenia for a lifetime and never develop osteoporosis.

How is Osteoporosis Diagnosed?

You cannot see or feel your bones becoming thinner or weaker, so most people don’t know they have weak bones until one breaks. Bone mineral density testing can diagnose osteoporosis. A DXA scan — a quick, painless, low-dose x-ray of the hip and spine that measures bone density —is used to diagnose both osteoporosis and osteopenia.

How is Osteoporosis Treated?

According to orthopaedic surgeon, Alan H. Klein, MD, if test results indicate that you have osteoporosis, your doctor or health care provider may prescribe a medication to help prevent additional bone loss or rebuild bone.

People diagnosed with osteopenia need to be regularly monitored. Medicine may also be prescribed for those with significant risk factors for osteoporosis or fracture. Blood tests are used to monitor the effectiveness of treatment.

Ways to Improve Bone Health and Prevent Osteoporosis

Since bone loss builds up over time, our bones become weaker as we age. You can help decrease bone loss through lifestyle choices that begin in childhood and continue throughout life. These lifestyle choices include:

  • Eat a healthy that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as foods rich in calcium – dairy products (low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese, yogurt); dark green, leafy vegetables (bok choy, broccoli); nuts (especially almonds); and calcium-fortified products.
  • Get plenty of vitamin D through sunlight, fortified milk, or supplements.
  • Be physically active with weight-bearing (walking, running, etc.) and muscle strengthening (weight lifting, etc.) exercises.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Take steps to prevent falls, including installing safety features in your home and having your vision checked regularly.
  • Discuss your bone health with your doctor or health care provider.