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Osteoporosis in Women Keeping Bones Healthy

Find out if you are at risk for osteoporosis - and what can be done to keep your bones strong.

by Ruchi Bhatia, MD – Sanford Clinic Women’s Health Internal Medicine

With summer comes sunshine, outdoor activities and family vacations. We always protect ourselves from the sun with sunscreen – why shouldn’t we also protect our bones from fractures with preventative measures? As we age, our susceptibility to fractures increases due to loss of bone mass. This cannot only lead to fractures but can also give way to a harsh bone disease called osteoporosis. Of the more than 10 million people in the United States who have osteoporosis, 80% of them are women.

Throughout your lifetime, your bones grow as your body grows. Old bone is removed from the skeleton and new bone is added. Throughout adolescence, new bone is added faster than old bone is removed. This results in a positive bone balance and an increased bone mass.

Your bones continue to grow until about age 30, when bones reach what is called "peak bone mass," or maximum density and strength. After this point, bone removal begins to outpace formation of new bone leading to bone loss. The rate of bone loss is greatest in the first few years after menopause. After that, bone loss continues but more slowly.

With osteoporosis, bone loss can occur with no obvious symptoms. While your bones may not feel weaker, you may experience symptoms without realizing their association with osteoporosis. For example, a loss of height, change in posture or severe back pain may be caused by osteoporosis.

Risk Factors for Osteoporosis
You could be at risk for osteoporosis if you:
• Are a postmenopausal woman over 50
• Are Caucasian or Asian, although African-American and Hispanic women are also at risk
• Have a family or personal history of fractures after age 50
• Are small-boned and thin
• Had early menopause before the age of 45
• Have a history of anorexia, bulimia, excessive exercise
• Are a smoker or a heavy drinker
• Have not consumed adequate amounts of calcium and/or have vitamin D deficiency
• Have an inactive lifestyle
• Take certain medications for chronic diseases including corticosteroids and chemotherapy

Screening for Bone Loss
Because the symptoms are so subtle, it is important to test your bone health. Your bone health can be assessed with a simple, painless test that takes only thirty minutes. A bone mineral density (BMD) test, also know as a densitometry (DEXA) scan, can help determine how to manage and treat your bone health. It uses special X-rays to measure the amount of calcium in the bones and determines your actual bone mass. Results can also show whether or not you have osteoporosis. Not only is the test quick and easy – it also does not require special preparation. Patients do not even have to change into gowns. The DEXA scan passes over the body, reading bone density in different areas. Your physician can explain the results to you.

Maintaining Healthy Bones
There are many ways you can decrease your risk of developing osteoporosis:
• Eat foods high in calcium
• Get enough vitamin D, especially during the winter months
• Exercise
• Quit smoking
• Limit your alcohol. If you drink alcohol, you should not drink more than two alcoholic beverages or drinks per day

Early detection is important in osteoporosis. Consider your risk factors and then discuss your prevention strategy with your doctor. If you're a woman, it's best to do this well before menopause. Talk to your doctor today to see what measures you should start taking to prevent the deterioration of your bones!