Bone up!

Everything You Need to Know About Women and Osteoporosis

Bone is living tissue that is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle, occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the loss of old bone; you’ll hear this referred to as a decrease in bone mass or bone mineral density. If you lose too much bone density, the bones become so weak that a small trip or bump that once resulted in a bruise or scrape could lead to a broken arm or hip. And if you have osteoporosis, those bones that healed up in a snap when you were a kid will take much longer to repair. Unfortunately, women are four times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis. Here’s what you need to know to improve bone health as you age.

Symptoms of Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is often called a “silent” disease because detectable symptoms in the early stages of bone loss are rare, but receding gums, weakening grip strength and brittle fingernails can point toward a greater potential for bone loss. As osteoporosis progresses, you could experience back pain from fractured vertebrae, a loss of height or stooped posture, or a broken bone from a movement or fall that wouldn’t normally cause a break, most often in the hip, the wrist or the aforementioned vertebrae in the spine.

Unalterable Risk Factors for Osteoporosis

Sex, age, race, family history and body frame size are risk factors for osteoporosis that are out of your control. Women are much more likely to develop osteoporosis than men, and that risk increases as we age. Those of white and Asian decent have the greatest risk. Having a family history of osteoporosis also increases your risk, especially if your mother or father fractured a hip. And those with small body frames have a higher risk because they often have less bone mass to lose.

Hormone Levels and Osteoporosis

As women approach menopause and their estrogen levels drop, their risk of osteoporosis increases, as in addition to the role estrogen plays in reproduction, it also helps to keep bones strong by regulating the activity of bone-making osteoblast cells. If you have an overactive thyroid or are taking too much medication to treat an underactive thyroid, an excess of thyroid hormone can also accelerate bone loss.

Unhealthy Habits and Osteoporosis

Certain lifestyle habits can affect your bone health. Research has shown a direct link between smoking and decreased bone density, and women who smoke also tend to go through menopause earlier than women who don’t. Additionally, frequent alcohol consumption can also have a negative effect on bone density. Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption is not only good for your bones, it’s good for your overall health as well.

Nutrition and Osteoporosis

Calcium: Early in life, women deposit calcium into their bones. When they reach their 30s, they reach peak bone mass and begin to draw calcium from their bones, which weakens them, so consuming enough calcium at all ages is critical to maximize the amount of calcium you put in when you’re younger and then avoid depleting it later. It is also important to start calcium supplementation during child-bearing years because pregnancy can weaken the bones. The recommended daily intake of calcium for women aged 19 to 50 is 1000 milligrams, but the RDI increases to 1300 milligrams for those over age 51. Get calcium from dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, and in dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, or consider a supplement.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption from food in the intestines, and adequate vitamin D consumption may decrease bone turnover and lead to increased bone density. Vitamin D also helps to keep muscles strong and can therefore reduce the risk of falls. While the recommended daily intake of Vitamin D is 600 to 800 IU, most nutritionists suggest 2000 IU to maintain healthy levels. Natural sources include organ meats, fatty fish, egg yolks and full-fat dairy.

Magnesium: Magnesium also works closely with calcium and contributes to increased bone density. However, up to 90% of Americans are magnesium-deficient, which may lead to decreased osteoblast cell activity and more rapid bone loss. The recommended daily intake of magnesium is 320 milligrams for women, but because most people only absorb 30 to 40% of the magnesium they consume, it’s a good idea to aim for more than the RDI. Pumpkin seeds, spinach, almonds, black beans and avocado are all high in magnesium, but if those foods aren’t your favorites, a supplement is also a good idea.

Collagen: Collagen is the main structural protein that makes up our tendons, ligaments, skin, muscles and bones, but as we age, our ability to produce collagen declines. After the age of 20, we produce 1% less collagen each year. Collagen supplements give your body the raw materials it needs to create more collagen on its own and may help increase bone formation and bone mineral density. However, collagen cannot be synthesized if it is not part of a balanced diet, or if you don’t consume an adequate amount of vitamin C.

Weight-Bearing Exercise and Osteoporosis

Staying active is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle, and incorporating weight-bearing activity is essential to maintaining bone mass as we age. Weight-bearing exercise can slow bone loss and can even help to build new bone by stimulating extra calcium deposits and spurring bone-building osteoblast cells into action. In this case, the stress provided by resistance training is a good thing, because it results in stronger, denser bones. Keep in mind that exercise will only benefit the bones it stresses, so walking, running and doing squats will only strengthen the bones in your lower body. You must also incorporated upper body exercises like pushups, back extensions, planks and shoulder presses to strengthen the bones of the upper body.

Osteoporosis Screenings

Bone density tests are quick, easy and pain-free and use low-dose x-ray technology to measure how many grams of calcium and other minerals are packed into a specific segment of bone, usually in the hips and spine. If you have a family history of osteoporosis, if you’re a woman over 50 who has fractured a bone before, or if you are a woman over 65 who has not fractured a bone but has also not had a bone health assessment, you should talk with your doctor about a bone density screening.