What is Osteoporosis and What Do You Need to Know?

Most people have heard of osteoporosis. We know it has to do with bones becoming brittle and weak. Yet many of us don’t really know what it is. As we age it is important for everyone, especially women, to understand what osteoporosis is. Although the disease is not curable, we can take treatments to prevent further bone loss and prevent fractures.

What is osteoporosis?

Simply put, osteoporosis is a progressive disease of the bones. Our bones become less dense and more porous. Often the first sign will be a simple fall resulting in a broken bone. Another sign might be severe back pain from cracks in the spine known as compression fractures.

Osteoporosis causes bone fractures and spinal deformity

When osteoporosis has progressed, a person can be so fragile that a simple sneeze or cough can cause a fracture. The risk of falling becomes very serious and hip fractures are common. A hip fracture can result in permanent disability and even death. Sometimes the spine becomes so weak that it is permanently bent over and rounded into a hump.

Osteoporosis affects more women than men

Men get osteoporosis, but the risk for women is higher. One reason is that women have smaller bone structures which break down faster. The main reason is that the drop in estrogen levels after menopause speeds up bone loss. In the 5 to 7 years after menopause, a woman can lose up to 20% of her bone mass. One in 4 women over the age of 50 will have osteoporosis.

What causes osteoporosis?

At this point scientists haven’t been able to identify one single cause for this disease. There are many risk factors. Having one or more risk factors makes it more likely that a person will get osteoporosis. Some of the risk factors are being a post-menopausal woman, aging, family history of the disease, inactivity, low calcium intake, excessive caffeine or alcohol use, and smoking.

How do doctors define osteoporosis?

A common method of diagnosis is bone mineral density (BMD) testing. The most common test is Dual Energy Absorptiometry (DXA). A low dose x-ray scans your spine and hips to find out how dense or thick your bones are. The results are compared to the average bone density of a young adult and are called “T-scores”.

A negative T-score indicates that the bones are below average for a young adult. Older adults usually have a negative score as bone loss is part of the normal aging process. A score below -2.5 indicates osteoporosis. A score between -1 and -2.5 indicates low bone density, which is called “osteopenia”.

Osteoporosis can be prevented and treated

Whether you have osteoporosis or want to prevent it, the keys to healthy bones are regular exercise, balanced diet, and sufficient intake of calcium and vitamin D. If you learn that you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, your doctor can offer medications to reduce bone loss and the risk of fracture.