Osteoporosis – Bones With Holes

What is it?

Osteoporosis is a common bone condition, affecting over 1 million Australians.  Our bone strength reaches its peak when we are about 25-30 years of age, then from the age of about 35, we gradually start losing this strength.  This occurs when the bones start losing minerals, such as calcium, at a faster rate than it is absorbing them. This is normal and is part of the natural ageing process.  In some people however, the loss of minerals occurs quicker than normal which results in weak bones that fracture more easily. This is called osteoporosis. The bones most commonly affected by osteoporosis are the hip, spine and wrist but it can affect any bones. Often there are no sign or symptoms of the condition which is why osteoporosis frequently goes undiagnosed.

Who does it affect?

Osteoporosis can affect anyone, however it is mainly seen in people over the age of 50 and in people with a family history of the condition.  Oestrogen (a hormone predominant in females) plays a large role in the maintenance of bone strength and as such postmenopausal women are affected more heavily than men of the same age.  The average woman can lose up to 10 percent of her bone mass in the first five years after menopause! Some young people can also develop osteoporosis however this is more often linked to certain medical conditions or as a result of certain medications. Risk factors associated with the development of osteoporosis include:

  • poor intake of dietary calcium
  • low levels of vitamin D
  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol intake
  • reduced physical activity, especially weight bearing activity
  • early menopause (before 45)
  • long term use of some medications, eg cortisone
  • thyroid disease
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • conditions that affect the bodies ability to absorb nutrients, such as Coeliacs or inflammatory bowel conditions

If you think that you may be at risk of having Osteoporosis it is important to speak to your GP.  They can refer you for a DEXA scan which is an easy and reliable way to assess the density of your bones and your risk of having osteoporosis.

How can I prevent it?

There are a number of ways you can protect yourself against Osteoporosis.  Some of these include:

  • Having adequate levels of Calcium in your diet – Calcium is an important mineral involved in building bone and providing the bones with strength.  The suggested daily intake of calcium for adults is 1000mg per day. This level goes up to 1300mg per day in women above the age of 50 and in men above the age of 70.  The best way to achieve these levels is through diet, with Osteoporosis Australia recommending we eat 3-5 serves of calcium rich foods each day. Some examples of calcium rich foods include dairy products such as milk, cheese or yogurt, salmon or sardines, vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and bok choy and almonds.  If you are concerned you are not getting enough calcium from diet alone, speak to your GP. They may recommend a calcium supplement to boost your intake levels
  • Having adequate levels of Vitamin D – Vitamin D is another important mineral involved in osteoporosis prevention, as this vitamin helps absorb calcium into the bones.  Vitamin D is produced in the body as a result of direct exposure to sunlight. Osteoporosis Australia recommends most people should have a vitamin D level of at least 50 nmol/L at the end of winter with these levels being 10-20 nmol/L higher over summer. The suggested level of sun exposure to generate this amount of vitamin D is a few minutes per day during summer and 2-3 hours per week over May to August (if based in Melbourne).  If you think your vitamin D levels might be low, speak to your GP as vitamin D levels can be boosted with supplements
  • Regular physical activity – The extra stress and strain placed on the bones during exercise encourages the body to strengthen them.  The best type of exercise for bone health is regular (>3 times a week) weight bearing exercise that is varied in nature and progressively gets harder with time. Sports such as netball and tennis are great ways to encourage bone strength, followed by activities such as running and resistance training.  Walking and activities such as lawn bowls will encourage some bone strengthening but to a lesser extent. Although providing many health benefits, swimming and cycling have little to no effect on encouraging bone building. Exercise that focuses on balance, such as Pilates or Exercise Physiology Strength classes, may also help reduce the incidence of fractures in those with bone weakening by reducing the chance of falls.  If you are wanting more information on physical activity that is suitable for you, have a chat to one of the health practitioners at Beyond.
  • Avoid smoking – evidence suggests that smokers have a lower bone density than non smokers
  • Drink alcohol in moderation and limit your caffeine intake – excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine can limit your bodies ability to absorb calcium.  It is suggested that you should drink no more than 2-3 cups of coffee a day and that alcohol should be limited to 2 standard glasses every other day.

If you have any queries regarding Osteoporosis or are wanting further information on anything discussed in this blog, speak to us at Beyond and we can point you in the right direction!

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