By Ronda Gates, MS
Gates, MS, is a pharmacy grad who traded her white coat for a pair of
athletic shoes and never looked back. Her health promotion business,
LIFESTYLES, provides motivational speaking, program development, and
fitness assessment services to support people making a lifestyle change.
She has developed health promotion programs for many organizations nationwide.
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early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
A Dowager at Any Age
May is National Osteoporosis Prevention Month. This debilitating disease deserves our attention all year long. I have a vested interest in spreading the message about outwitting osteoporosis because it was the origin of a progressive series of complications that led to my mother’s death.
|Men and women of all ages need to be concerned about osteoporosis:
• Young teens who use asthma inhalers
• Twenty-somethings who exercise too much or diet excessively to stay thin
• Thirty-somethings who are treated for breast cancer or have had a hysterectomy
• Forty-somethings who take thyroid replacement or drink too much coffee
• Fifty-somethings who believe a daily vitamin pill and calcium supplement are enough to keep bones strong
• Sixty-somethings who don’t do weight-bearing exercise
• Seventy-somethings who think it’s too late to prevent the diseases of aging
Bone Building 101
Bone is alive. New bone is being added and old bone dissolved throughout life. During childhood and teenage years, if we eat healthfully and exercise, new bone is added faster than old bone is removed. This process makes bones larger, heavier, and denser. This faster pace of bone growth continues until about age thirty. After that, bone loss slowly begins to exceed bone formation until menopause, when bone loss can be dramatic.
What Is Osteoporosis?
When your bones are not as dense as they should be, the diagnosis is osteopenia, a thinning of bone mass that currently predisposes more than thirty-four million American women to the more serious disease of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis, the diagnosis for ten million women and two million men, is marked by a severe loss of bone density that can lead to loss of height, stooped posture, humpback, and severe pain if a bone fractures.
When I ask my audiences to describe a person with osteoporosis, the most frequent responses are “a stooped-over old man,” or “an old woman with a dowager’s hump.” It’s not that simple. Osteoporosis can occur at any age.
How Can You Find Out If You Have Weak Bones?
A bone density test can confirm bone weakness before a fracture occurs. The most reliable test — called a DEXA scan — can measure fracture-prone spots, including your hip, wrist, or shoulder without the need to undress. Don’t be intimidated by the big DEXA bone-scanning machine. The scan is painless, and the amount of x-ray used is less than you are exposed to on an airplane trip.
Your DEXA scan will be scored by comparing your bones in one of two ways. A Z-score compares your bones to other people your age. Most health professionals prefer you learn your T-score that compares your bones to what is normal at the height of bone health in your mid-thirties.
Can Osteoporosis Be Treated?
If your scan shows you have osteoporosis, it is probable you will be urged to take the most popular treatment for osteoporosis: a class of drugs called bisphosphonates. There are several oral bisphosphonates available in the U.S., including Fosamax (generic alendronate) released in 1995, Actonel (generic risedronate) released in 1998, and Boniva (generic ibandronate) released in 2003. Recently, the “oldest” of these, Fosamax, came under fire because a few of the millions of women who have taken the drug for more than five years experienced low-impact thigh fractures. Others, who had dental surgery, learned their jawbones had disintegrated.
The jury is still out on whether bisphosphonates, which have been proven to reduce the potential for hip or spine fractures in women diagnosed with osteoporosis, ultimately stop working and trigger more bone loss in the thighbone or jaw. Currently most professionals are urging patients who have osteoporosis and have been using bisphosphonates to take a “drug holiday” after five years’ use.
Other less popular treatments include sex-hormone-related medications, and for serious disease, injections of a human parathyroid hormone.
Drug treatment is not the best course of action if your diagnosis is osteopenia. People with osteopenia — in fact, anyone who is serious about maintaining good bone health — must follow the course of action recommended below.
What Can I Do to Keep My Bones Strong?
You’ll get the most bang for your buck with an exercise and strength-building program that triggers changes in your bones. Impact exercises — especially walking, hiking, jogging, stair climbing, and dancing — work best. Add strength-building weight training, and you’ll increase bone mass faster, as the tension that hard-working muscles put on bones can prevent bone loss and, in some cases, increase bone density. Beyond that, it’s essential to eat calcium-containing foods including low-fat dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, and foods fortified with calcium such as orange juice, cereals, and whole-grain breads. Additionally, a twice-a-day calcium supplement that includes vitamin D to help the calcium get into your bones is critical to bone health. Since calcium needs increase with age, ask your doctor about the right dose for you.
Smart men and women can have strong bones. But there is no magic. Outwitting osteoporosis requires well-informed health and lifestyle choices. The effort is well worth it. I know. Osteoporosis stole my mother’s life. It won’t take mine.
Gates is the author of Outwitting Osteoporosis: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Bone Health. This “easy read” will tell you more about risk factors, calcium food sources, and calcium needs at various ages for both men and women. It can be purchased at www.rondagates.com.