By Karen Kansler, R.N.
Special to the Review
Why are most older adults afraid of falling? Broken bones – often due to a “silent” bone-thinning disease called osteoporosis – can lead to disability, pain and decreased independence.
The World Health Organization estimates that osteoporosis causes more than 2.3 million fractures annually in Europe and the U.S. alone. There are steps you can take to help strengthen your bones, slow bone loss and lower your risk for painful fractures.
Eye on our bones
It’s hard to picture the inside of our bones, but getting a bead on this can help you visualize and achieve better bone health. Bones resemble the circular cells in honeycombs. With osteoporosis, spaces in this honeycomb grow larger. The bone that forms the “honeycomb” gets smaller, and the outer shell of your bones also gets thinner. This loss makes your bones weaker and more prone to fractures. Taking steps to preserve stable bones – or to fill the cells with healthy bones – can pay off, particularly as we age and begin to lose strength.
Healthier bones, starting now
Bone loss associated with aging is more common in women (especially during and after menopause) than men. If bone loss continues, bones become weak and can easily fracture. Significant bone deficiency also can lead to loss of height.
There are risk factors for osteoporosis that you can’t control, including family history, being female (especially Caucasian or Asian), aging (elderly are prone) and having thin or small bones.
But, you can lower your risk. And the sooner you start, the better. Just as it’s never too early to start improving your bone health, it’s never too late either.
Take the bone test
Although bone loss is a natural part of aging, you can take steps to ensure that bones remain healthy and strong. And, you don’t have to wait until you suffer a fracture. Ask your physician about bone densitometry, a test called DEXA (short for Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry).
DEXAscan is a low-dose X-ray that safely, accurately and painlessly checks hips, hands or feet for signs of mineral loss and bone-thinning. The results of the test are used to determine if you need medication to maintain bone mass, to reduce bone loss and fracture risk. It gives doctors the ability to recognize early signs of bone loss or osteoporosis.
Drink your milk, get some sun
Mama was right when she said to “drink your milk,” as calcium can help slow the loss of bone mass. Experts advise adults older than age 50 to consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily. Three to four daily servings of dairy products, such as low-fat yogurt, cheese and milk, as well as salmon, provide the proper amount of calcium. If you’re not getting enough, your doctor may recommend a calcium supplement.
Another key nutrient for people with osteoporosis is vitamin D. Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Being outside in the sun for 30 minutes supplies enough vitamin D for a day. If this isn’t possible, eat fish, eggs and liver. Check with your doctor to see how much vitamin D you should be getting – and whether you need a supplement.
Get moving, curb bone loss
You can also reduce bone loss by moving. Engage in regular weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, yoga or Tai Chi, dancing, weight training or low-impact aerobics. As always, before starting any physical activity, speak with your physician.
Regular activity can improve your strength, coordination and balance – which can lower your risk of falling and suffering a fracture. Staying active can be fun. It can help you lose weight, get your heart moving and reduce stress, so it’s all good!
Build strength in numbers
Local, free osteoporosis support groups can play an important role to teach you about your condition and find resources. You can make friends and even gain walking buddies.
You have the strength to help reduce your risk and manage osteoporosis. You just need to take the first step to ask for help. You can do it!
Karen Kansler, R.N., is an arthritis outreach nurse at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital. Email questions to Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her blog at medstargoodsam-org/Karen.