black and white picture of man with sore joints

Many women, as they age, worry about osteoporosis. This disease affects women more than men, although men are not immune. It is called a silent disease: many people have no idea that they are afflicted until it immobilizes them. So what is osteoporosis – and its predecessor, osteopenia?

Osteoporosis is a loss of bone mass density. As osteoporosis progresses, bone loss can be so severe that the stress of standing, sitting, or even hugging a friend can cause bones to break. Most susceptible are the spine, hips, and wrists.

Typically associated with elderly women, osteoporosis may begin taking its silent toll while she is still in her twenties. In healthy people, bone mass builds for 20 to 35 years. As a person ages, bone density levels out and then typically decreases. Without intervention, bones become porous and weak. No symptoms materialize, however, until a fracture occurs. In its early stage, the disease is called osteopenia. Bone density has diminished but not so acutely as with osteoporosis. Osteopenia does indicate a risk of developing osteoporosis.

While one in four men over fifty, according to the National Institute of Health, are likely to develop osteoporosis, one half of all women will. Women are more susceptible because their bones are smaller, and because hormone changes after menopause affect calcium absorption.

Osteoporosis has no cure. Fortunately, preventative measures exist as well as treatments once the disease is diagnosed. Diet and exercise are the best ways to prevent or slow the advance of osteopenia and osteoporosis. A balanced diet with sufficient calcium and vitamin D is the first step. This needs to start early in life to achieve maximum bone density, and then needs to continue to maintain that density. Any exercise routine, including walking, is helpful, but strength-training (weight-bearing) exercises are most beneficial to prevent or slow osteopenia. Smoking and excessive alcohol should be avoided as they contribute to calcium loss.

How do you know if you have osteopenia or osteoporosis? Losing height or developing a curved spine and stooped posture indicates a loss of bone mass. It is not necessary, however, to wait until the disease is this advanced. A simple, ten-minute bone density test measures the presence of the disease. A doctor can then recommend lifestyle changes or, as necessary, medicine that will stop or even reverse the loss of bone density.

Osteoporosis can be devastating; fortunately, it also can be controlled.

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