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Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle — so brittle that a fall or even mild stresses like bending over or coughing can cause a fracture. Osteoporosis-related fractures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine.

Bone is living tissue that is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn't keep up with the removal of old bone.

Osteoporosis affects men and women of all races. But white and Asian women — especially older women who are past menopause — are at highest risk. Medications, healthy diet and weight-bearing exercise can help prevent bone loss or strengthen already weak bones.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

There typically are no symptoms in the early stages of bone loss. But once bones have been weakened by osteoporosis, you may have signs and symptoms that include:

  • Back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra
  • Loss of height over time
  • A stooped posture
  • A bone fracture that occurs much more easily than expected

When to see a doctor

You may want to talk to your doctor about osteoporosis if you went through early menopause, took corticosteroids for several months at a time, or either of your parents had hip fractures.

Your bones are in a constant state of renewal — new bone is made and old bone is broken down. When you're young, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone and your bone mass increases. Most people reach their peak bone mass by their early 20s. As people age, bone mass is lost faster than it's created.

How likely you are to develop osteoporosis depends partly on how much bone mass you attained in your youth. The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have "in the bank" and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age.

A number of factors can increase the likelihood that you'll develop osteoporosis — including your age, race, lifestyle choices, and medical conditions and treatments.

Unchangeable risks

Some risk factors for osteoporosis are out of your control, including:

  • Your sex. Women are much more likely to develop osteoporosis than are men.
  • Age. The older you get, the greater your risk of osteoporosis.
  • Race. You're at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you're white or of Asian descent.
  • Family history. Having a parent or sibling with osteoporosis puts you at greater risk, especially if your mother or father experienced a hip fracture.
  • Body frame size. Men and women who have small body frames tend to have a higher risk because they may have less bone mass to draw from as they age.

Hormone levels

Osteoporosis is more common in people who have too much or too little of certain hormones in their bodies. Examples include:

  • Sex hormones. Lowered sex hormone levels tend to weaken bone. The reduction of estrogen levels at menopause is one of the strongest risk factors for developing osteoporosis. Women may also experience a drop in estrogen during certain cancer treatments. Men experience a gradual reduction in testosterone levels as they age. And some treatments for prostate cancer reduce testosterone levels in men.
  • Thyroid problems. Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. This can occur if your thyroid is overactive or if you take too much thyroid hormone medication to treat an underactive thyroid.
  • Other glands. Osteoporosis has also been associated with overactive parathyroid and adrenal glands.

Dietary factors

Osteoporosis is more likely to occur in people who have:

  • Low calcium intake. A lifelong lack of calcium plays a major role in the development of osteoporosis. Low calcium intake contributes to diminished bone density, early bone loss and an increased risk of fractures.
  • Eating disorders. People who have anorexia are at higher risk of osteoporosis. Low food intake can reduce the number of calories and amount of protein and calcium ingested. In women, anorexia can stop menstruation, leading to weaker bones. In men, anorexia lowers the amount of sex hormones in the body and can weaken bone.
  • Gastrointestinal surgery. A reduction in the size of your stomach or a bypass or removal of part of the intestine limits the amount of surface area available to absorb nutrients, including calcium.

Steroids and other medications

Long-term use of oral or injected corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone and cortisone, interferes with the bone-rebuilding process. Osteoporosis has also been associated with medications used to combat or prevent:

  • Seizures
  • Gastric reflux
  • Cancer
  • Transplant rejection

Lifestyle choices

Some bad habits can increase your risk of osteoporosis. Examples include:

  • Sedentary lifestyle. People who spend a lot of time sitting have a higher risk of osteoporosis than do those who are more active. Any weight-bearing exercise and activities that promote balance and good posture are beneficial for your bones, but walking, running, jumping, dancing and weightlifting seem particularly helpful.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption. Regular consumption of more than two alcoholic drinks a day increases your risk of osteoporosis.
  • Tobacco use. The exact role tobacco plays in osteoporosis isn't clearly understood, but it has been shown that tobacco use contributes to weak bones.

Bone fractures, particularly in the spine or hip, are the most serious complication of osteoporosis. Hip fractures often result from a fall and can result in disability and even death from postoperative complications, especially in older adults.

In some cases, spinal fractures can occur even if you haven't fallen. The bones that make up your spine (vertebrae) can weaken to the point that they may crumple, which can result in back pain, lost height and a hunched forward posture.

Three factors essential for keeping your bones healthy throughout your life are:

  • Adequate amounts of calcium
  • Adequate amounts of vitamin D
  • Regular exercise

Calcium

Men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. This daily amount increases to 1,200 milligrams when women turn 50 and men turn 70. Good sources of calcium include:

  • Low-fat dairy products (200 to 300 milligrams per serving)
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Canned salmon or sardines with bones
  • Soy products, such as tofu
  • Calcium-fortified cereals and orange juice

If you find it difficult to get enough calcium from your diet, consider taking calcium supplements. However, too much calcium has been linked to heart problems and kidney stones. The Institute of Medicine recommends that total calcium intake, from supplements and diet combined, should be no more than 2,000 milligrams daily for people older than 50.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D improves your body's ability to absorb calcium. Many people get adequate amounts of vitamin D from sunlight, but this may not be a good source if you live in high latitudes, if you're housebound, or if you regularly use sunscreen or avoid the sun entirely because of the risk of skin cancer.

Scientists don't yet know the optimal daily dose of vitamin D. A good starting point for adults is 600 to 800 international units (IU) a day, through food or supplements. If your blood levels of vitamin D are low, your doctor may suggest higher doses. Teens and adults can safely take up to 4,000 international units (IU) a day.

Exercise

Exercise can help you build strong bones and slow bone loss. Exercise will benefit your bones no matter when you start, but you'll gain the most benefits if you start exercising regularly when you're young and continue to exercise throughout your life.

Combine strength training exercises with weight-bearing exercises. Strength training helps strengthen muscles and bones in your arms and upper spine, and weight-bearing exercises — such as walking, jogging, running, stair climbing, skipping rope, skiing and impact-producing sports — affect mainly the bones in your legs, hips and lower spine.

Swimming, cycling and exercising on machines such as elliptical trainers can provide a good cardiovascular workout, but because such exercises are low impact, they're not as helpful for improving bone health as weight-bearing exercises are. There is evidence that competitive cyclists have reduced bone mineral density. They should combine strength training and weight-bearing exercises and consider a test for osteoporosis.

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