Under a microscope, the inside of a healthy bone looks a lot like a sponge, consisting of open spaces supported by solid bone tissue. Unlike a sponge, this tissue is not soft. In fact, it’s sturdy enough to support your body. When osteoporosis occurs, the open spaces get larger, while the solid tissue gets smaller, diminishing the bone’s strength and increasing the risk of fracturing.
While osteoporosis can affect patients of any age, it’s more common in seniors, especially women. In the U.S., more than 53 million people have either been diagnosed with the disease or are considered to be at high risk of developing it. Worldwide, the International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that about one in ten women over 60 has osteoporosis, while four in ten women over 80 have it. Research shows that half of all women and a fourth of all men over the age of 50 will suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis at some point. Economically, the total cost of osteoporosis is more than $19 billion and is expected to exceed $25 billion by 2025.
The most common bones that break from osteoporosis are the hips, wrists, and spine, although other bones can also break. These injuries can occur from minor falls or even from normal, everyday activities. And for elderly patients, broken bones heal slowly and sometimes require surgery. Plus, in addition to an increased risk of bone fractures, the disease limits the patient’s mobility, which in turn can lead to depression and feelings of loneliness or isolation. Long term, it is estimated that 20 percent of seniors who break a hip die within a year of their injury due to complications related to the fracture itself or the surgery it takes to repair it.
A silent disease
Because the early stages of osteoporosis don’t cause any noticeable symptoms, it is often referred to as a “silent disease.” For most patients, a confirmed diagnosis occurs only after they fracture a bone. That said, if you have a family history of osteoporosis – or notice new symptoms that include receding gums, weak grip strength, or weak and brittle nails – it’s a good idea to mention this to your doctor so he or she can assess your risk of developing the disease.
It’s still not clear exactly why osteoporosis starts to develop in some patients, but a combination of factors seems to indicate a heightened risk. The most prominent of these is age. Starting in your thirties, the body starts to break down bone tissue faster than it can replace it, leading to more fragile bones that are prone to break. For women, menopause is another risk factor, as the change in hormone levels can speed up bone loss.
Osteoporosis may also be caused by certain medical conditions, including hyperthyroidism, as well as by certain medications like corticosteroids and even prolonged use of antacids that contain aluminum. Poor nutrition, a lack of physical activity, and smoking are also potential contributors to osteoporosis.
Treatment options for osteoporosis
While there is no cure for osteoporosis, there are ways to slow down the loss of bone tissue and even promote the growth of new tissue, protecting and strengthening your bones. This includes a wide range of medical options that your doctor may prescribe, including bisphosphonates like Fosamax or Boniva.
Physical activity also helps guard against bone loss because, every time a muscle contracts and pulls on the bone at both ends, it signals the body to strengthen the bone. Diet changes may also be recommended, especially eating more food with calcium, like nonfat or low-fat dairy products, broccoli, cauliflower, salmon and leafy green vegetables. Vitamin D is also important because it helps your body absorb the calcium.
From a quality-of-life perspective, preventing or delaying osteoporosis for as long as possible will help you maintain an active lifestyle, which is important for overall happiness. So talk to your doctor and ask how you can determine if you’re at risk for this debilitating disease.