Overview of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a word that literally means “porous bone.” It is a metabolic bone disease that primarily affects older women, although men can also develop the condition. It happens when there is significant bone loss that causes the bones to lose strength and density, making them weak and brittle and more susceptible to breaking.
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Osteoporosis is sometimes called a “silent disease” because you can’t feel your bones losing strength. The primary symptom, and often the first sign, is a broken bone. The most commonly broken bones due to osteoporosis are the hip, wrist, and spine. In the cases where symptoms do appear earlier on, they can include:
- Back pain
- Reduction in height over time
- Stooped posture or a hunched back
- Receding gum line
- Weak, brittle nails
- Weak grip strength
Experts don’t yet know the reason osteoporosis occurs, although they understand the mechanism behind it. The bones of the human body contain a core of porous or spongy bone, called the trabecular bone, where calcium and other minerals are stored. This is surrounded by a dense outer casing of bone, called the cortical bone.
Throughout our life, our body breaks down the porous bone and takes calcium when needed and then rebuilds the bone structure. Thus, the body is continuously going through a natural cycle of bone loss and replacement. Up until about the age of 30, our bones rebuild bone mass faster than they lose it, providing us with a higher bone mass overall. The more this happens in our younger years, the better.
Once we get into our 30s and beyond, our body begins to rebuild bone mass more slowly. Osteoporosis is the result of the body not being able to replace bone as quickly as it loses it, which results in an overall bone mass loss. For women, the rate of bone loss increases even more after menopause. If your body didn’t build bone mass effectively when you were younger, giving you “extra,” you are more likely to have osteoporosis when you’re older.
Age, gender, personal habits, and certain diseases and conditions play a role in the development of osteoporosis. Your risk of osteoporosis is higher if you:
- Are a woman older than 50 (but men and younger adults can also develop osteoporosis)
- Are short and slender
- Are of certain ethnicities, particularly Caucasian and Asian
- Have diabetes, thyroid imbalance, or certain autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, and other medical conditions
- Have a family history of osteoporosis and bone fractures
- Don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D, or protein in your diet
- Are physically inactive
- Smoke tobacco or consume more than two alcoholic drinks per day
There are some risk factors that you can’t control when it comes to osteoporosis. You are born with your gender, ethnicity, and family history. However, you can control lifestyle factors. While it’s not something many young people think about, the healthier your lifestyle when you’re younger, the lower your risk of developing osteoporosis when you are older. Of course, no matter your age, improving your lifestyle can only help, even if you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis. The key is to:
- Eat a diet that is high in fresh, whole foods and low in refined and processed foods
- Be sure your diet is rich in calcium and vitamin D
- Make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet, which is 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight after age 40 (and more if you do regular strength training)
- Get plenty of exercise, including strength training and balancing exercises, because the stronger your muscles are, the stronger your bones will be
- Reduce the amount of alcohol you consume
- Stop smoking
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.