Now that I am more than just flirting with it, I want you to know firsthand that old age is not for sissies. I recently overheard a frail, angel-looking grandma say “Because of my osteoporosis, my days of shooting from the hip are numbered.” Osteoporosis literally means porous bone, and is when the process of resorption of existing bone outpaces the formation of new bone. The term osteopenia means bone deficiency and is a more mild form and a precursor of osteoporosis. As the bone density decreases the risk of fracture increases. This bone loss begins in the early thirties and will ultimately impact over 50% of females and approximately 30% of males. It is a silent disease because it progresses with no symptoms until there is a fracture. It is responsible each year for millions of hip, vertebral, wrist, and rib fractures worldwide.
Osteoporosis is more dangerous than it may initially sound in that, depending on the location of the fracture, it can create a loss of mobility, a thrombosis or embolism, infection, chronic pain, pneumonia, and a statistically approximate 15% fatality rate within 6 months. Osteoporosis is not contagious; you don’t catch it. There are, however, some "built in" unavoidable risk factors such as family history, advanced age, being of small stature, of Asian or European ancestry, and estrogen or testosterone deficiency. Certain medications such as steroids like cortisone and prednisone, some thyroid medications, barbiturates, as well as antacids, add to the de-mineralization of bones. There are also a number of medical conditions associated with osteoporosis, such as endocrine maladies, anorexia, kidney insufficiency, Parkinson’s disease, hematologic and rheumatologic disorders, malnutrition, and any condition that causes prolonged immobilization of the body. Women who have gone through menopause or have had a hysterectomy experience an increase in bone loss.
There are a number of "avoidable" causes of osteoporosis that are worth mentioning. Some are rather obvious and sabotage our general health. Things like smoking, excess alcohol, soft drinks, caffeine, and sodium consumption are antagonistic to bone growth. Some factors may not be so intuitive, such as being underweight, particularly if coupled with being inactive. Intense and endurance training, particularly in young females, suppresses normal hormone secretion and can lead to decreased bone density. Diet is of course a major factor when it is deficient in bone building blocks. There is an interesting paradox when it comes to protein. Low protein diets have been linked to poor bone health, and conversely, diets that are too high, specifically in animal protein, can disrupt normal calcium absorption.
I’ve given you some of the bad news, but the good news is that the risk of osteoporosis can be substantially reduced by some fairly simple lifestyle changes. It’s all about quality of life. Weight bearing and muscle strengthening activities are key in minimizing bone fragility as we advance in age. The general formula of at least 30 minutes of exercise 4 to 6 days a week should be sufficient. As a side benefit, staying active helps to maintain coordination and balance, diminishing the possibility of fractures from falls. Diet is also huge. Ample sources of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamin D should be emphasized. Green leafy vegetables, coconut and almond milk, and supplementation are helpful in fortifying your bones. If you are taking some of the medications that have been mentioned here, work with your physician to see if there are more healthy options.
There are 206 bones in the mature adult body. They are the frame, support, and protection for the vital organs and tissues. You don’t want to be an example of the well known TV commercial that goes, “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.” Treat your bones right and they may just stick around for as long as you need them.