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A bone density test can help measure the strength of our bones. It’s especially important for older adults and people with certain health conditions.

Bones tend to lose density as we age, meaning that there is less mineral in the bones and fewer connections. Lower bone density can make bones more fragile. This increases your risk of breaking a bone or developing a progressive bone disease called osteoporosis.

People living with osteoporosis have thin, weak bones that can break more easily, especially in the wrists, hips, and spine. These injuries can be fatal in those most prone to developing osteoporosis – primarily women over the age of 65. In fact, more than 80% of the roughly 10 million Americans with osteoporosis are women, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health.

Estrogen is vital to women’s bone health, so postmenopausal women are at the greatest risk of bone loss. If you’re not getting enough calcium in your daily diet, or you never developed strong bones to begin with, your body may take calcium from your bones to keep your nervous system, muscles, and heart working properly.

Symptoms of bone loss often go unnoticed for years until you’re faced with an unexpected broken bone. Bone breaks can dramatically impact your quality of life, especially if you’re an older adult.

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What Is a Bone Density Test?

The best way to test your bone density is with a noninvasive bone density test, also known as dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry or DXA scan.

This test helps doctors diagnose the early stages of bone loss, known as osteopenia, as well as osteoporosis and bone fractures.

Compared to regular x-rays, DXA technology provides more accurate images, allowing doctors to diagnose, treat, and prevent bone disease as early as possible. These scans use low levels of radiation, and do not require the use of anesthesia.

Who Should Get a Bone Density Test?

According to the National Library of Medicine, those who should consider taking a bone density test include:

  • Women ages 65 and older.
  • Men ages 70 and older.
  • Those with a family history of bone disease.
  • Anyone who has experienced a fracture after age 50.
  • Those with other risk factors, such as poor diet or being underweight, lack of exercise, smoking, heavy drinking, and use of certain medications like steroids.

You should not get a DXA scan if you:

  • Are pregnant or might be pregnant.
  • Received certain types of x-rays within seven days of your scheduled test.

How is a Bone Density Test Done?

On the day of your test, you may eat normally, but your technician will ask you to avoid taking any calcium supplements. Wear loose, comfortable clothing with no metal zippers or buttons.

The scan usually takes 10 to 30 minutes. You will lie down on an open comfortable padded table with a scanner hovering over but not touching your body. You will need to stay still to get the clearest images.

After an image of your skeleton is taken, an expert in reading DXAs will evaluate the scans. They will provide a report to your health care provider who may suggest a treatment plan if needed.

What Do My Results Mean?

Typically, results are given in the form of a “T score.” This measurement compares how much bone you have with that of a healthy young adult of your gender. A low T score indicates possible bone loss or osteoporosis.

Some providers also will measure your results with a “Z score,” which compares the amount of bone you have with others in your age group.

For more information about bone density testing, contact UPMC Magee-Womens Imaging at 412-641-4700 or schedule an appointment online.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.