A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.
ANN ARBOR, MI – You’re not the same person you were 10 years ago.
In the span of a decade, most people experience changes in their personal life, career, style and – bone structure? Yes, your bones are constantly at work clearing out old bone cells and making new ones in their place, resulting in an entirely new skeleton every 10 years.
Unfortunately, as people age, bones break down faster than they are replaced, which can cause them to become thin and fragile. For millions of Americans, a disease called osteoporosis leads to a progressive loss of bone mass over time, putting them at an increased risk for bone fractures and other complications.
“Osteoporosis can result in disability, loss of independence, even death,” says Liselle Douyon, M.D., an endocrinologist at the University of Michigan Health System. The disease is considered a major public health threat for an estimated 44 million Americans, and roughly 10 million already have the disease. While osteoporosis is quite common, Douyon says it is still a condition that is widely misunderstood.
To help people understand who is at risk for the disease, as well as ways to prevent and treat it, Douyon clears up some common myths about osteoporosis.
7 myths – and facts – about osteoporosis
MYTH: Only women get osteoporosis
FACT: “Although there are many more women who may develop this condition, there’s also a very significant portion of men who have this disease,” Douyon says. In fact, roughly 2 million men suffer from osteoporosis, accounting for 20 percent of those diagnosed with the disease.
MYTH: Osteoporosis is a normal part of aging
FACT: “It is a fact that you lose bone density with aging,” agrees Douyon. “But you should continue to have good bone strength, and you should not develop osteoporosis.”
MYTH: Osteoporosis is only a concern for the elderly
FACT: It is never too early to begin thinking about strong bones. “Good bone health is something that starts early in life,” says Douyon. Your bones begin building density from infancy through young adulthood. Most people have reached maximum bone density by age 35. “If maximum bone density is not achieved during that time, you will be at risk for developing osteoporosis,” Douyon cautions.
MYTH: Osteoporosis is strictly hereditary
FACT: While women with a family history of osteoporosis are at an increased risk of developing the disease, “not having a family history does not mean that you are immune to having this condition,” says Douyon. Everyone is susceptible. However, there are several factors that can make an individual more likely to develop osteoporosis. “Certain kidney diseases, vitamin D deficiency, some hormonal diseases such as some thyroid disorders, Cushing’s syndrome, individuals who are treated with steroids for certain medical conditions, and certain types of cancer can contribute to osteoporosis,” she says.
MYTH: Broken bones are the only way to tell if you have osteoporosis
FACT: Because osteoporosis has no symptoms, most people are not aware that they have it until something happens, like a bone fracture. However, this is not the only indicator of the disease. “Even people who don’t have broken bones may develop osteoporosis. Many people may not even know they had a broken bone, and they may develop a change in their posture or a loss in height,” Douyon explains. To help determine whether bone loss has begun, it is important to get a bone density test every few years, especially for women who have entered menopause. The most common method of measuring bone density is a DEXA scan, which is a painless X-ray of your hip and spine.
MYTH: Osteoporosis cannot be prevented
FACT: Building strong bones during childhood and adolescence is the best defense against developing osteoporosis later in life. Adults can take steps too to lower their risk of developing the disease. “In order to prevent osteoporosis, it’s very important that one has adequate nutrition, good calcium intake, exercise, and adequate vitamin D supplementation,” says Douyon.
Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging, lifting weights and dancing are the best for building strong bones. People who already have osteoporosis should avoid these exercises, as they increase the risk of breaking a bone. Calcium intake is very important, too. Douyon recommends calcium supplementation throughout the entire lifespan, especially for women. Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake also will lower your chances of developing osteoporosis.
MYTH: Only osteoporosis medications can prevent future bone lossFACT: The FDA has approved certain medications to prevent and/or treat the disease. “Medications alone, however, do not help to build bone,” Douyon cautions. “It’s only one of the things that can be done in order to rebuild or prevent future bone loss.” Most of the drugs inhibit the cells that break down bone, and one actually stimulates the growth of new bone. Unfortunately, these drugs haven’t been available for very long, so their long-term effects are not known and people should not rely on them alone.
“People who are on medications for osteoporosis still have to take calcium and vitamin D,” says Douyon. In addition, “For some women, over-the-counter calcium isn’t enough. They need more than that, and this is something they really need to discuss with their doctor.”
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