Osteoporosis is a common bone disease among men and women over the age of 50. An estimated 75 million people in Europe, Japan and the United States suffer from this disease each year, which occurs when the body loses too much bone.
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis causes the bones to become weak. Weak bones may easily break due to falls or even minor bumps in severe cases.
When viewed under a microscope, healthy bone looks like a honeycomb. Osteoporosis causes the spaces and holes in the honeycomb to widen. These bones contain abnormal tissue structure and have lost mass or density.
As bones start to lose their density, they become weaker and are more prone to breaking. Bone breakage is a serious concern, especially among seniors who have this condition. With osteoporosis, breaks are more likely to occur in the wrist, hip or spine. It can also cause sufferers to lose height as the bones of the spine lose density. This can lead to a hunched or stooped posture.
Causes and Risk Factors
Bones are constantly regenerating themselves. We make new bone as our old bone breaks down. When we’re young, our bodies make new bone quicker than the old bone breaks down, which causes our bone mass to increase. We reach our peak bone mass in our 20s.
But as we age, we start to lose bone faster than our bodies can create it.
Your likelihood of developing osteoporosis will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Family history.
- Gender (women are at a greater risk of developing this condition).
- How much bone mass you attained in your youth.
- Age – the older you get, the greater your risk.
Osteoporosis tends to be more common in people who have too much or too little of certain hormones, including:
- When the body produces too much thyroid hormone, it can cause bone loss. This can occur if you develop hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) or you take too much thyroid medication.
- Sex hormones. Lower levels of sex hormones can lead to bone loss. In women, estrogen levels drop at menopause, which is one of the biggest risk factors of developing osteoporosis. Prostate treatments can also lower testosterone levels, putting men at risk for the disease.
- Other glands. Osteoporosis can also develop if you have overactive adrenal and parathyroid glands.
The food you eat can also increase your risk of developing osteoporosis. This disease is more likely to occur in people who have:
- Eating disorders. Being underweight or severely restricting your food intake can weaken bones in both men and women.
- Low calcium intake. A lifelong lack of calcium in the diet can lead to the development of osteoporosis.
- Gastrointestinal surgery. Surgery that removes part of the intestine or reduces the size of the stomach can make it more difficult for the body to absorb calcium, which increases your risk of developing this disease.
Certain lifestyle choices can also increase your risk of osteoporosis, including:
- It has been shown that tobacco use contributes to weaker bones.
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Consumption of two or more alcoholic drinks per day increases your risk of this bone disease.
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle. People who spend extended periods of time sitting are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis.
Medical Conditions and Procedures
Certain health conditions and medical procedures can increase the risk of osteoporosis, including:
- Breast and prostate cancer
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Spinal cord injuries
- Multiple myeloma
- Lymphoma and leukemia
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
Those who are taking steroid medicines and certain medications may also be at greater risk of developing osteoporosis. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your bone health when being prescribed new medication.
Osteoporosis is often called a silent disease because you cannot feel your bones deteriorating. Most people experience no symptoms in the early stages of this disease.
Once the bones have been weakened, signs and symptoms set in, which can include:
- Loss of height
- Bone fractures that occur more easily than normal
- Stooped posture
- Back pain
Complications of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis puts sufferers at a greater risk of developing bone fractures, which can cause severe pain. In many cases, fractures lead to decreased quality of life, lost work and even disability. An estimated 30% of people who suffer a hip fracture will require long-term nursing home care. About 20% of women with a hip fracture will die in the years following the injury.
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
If your doctor suspects that you have osteoporosis, your bone density levels will be checked. Bone density can be measured using a machine that uses low-level X-rays. This machine determines how much mineral is in your bones.
During the test, which is painless, a scanner will pass over your body. Typically, only a few bones are checked, such as the wrist, spine or hip.
Treatment options will typically depend on your risk of breaking a bone over the next decade. Low-risk patients may only have to make lifestyle changes. High-risk patients may be prescribed a combination of medications and lifestyle changes.
The most commonly prescribed medications for osteoporosis include:
- Zoledronic acid
Like most other medications, these can produce side effects, which may include:
- Heart-burn like symptoms
- Abdominal pain
Side effects can often be avoided by simply taking the medication properly. Intravenous forms of some medications are available, but they can cause fever, muscle aches and headache which last for several days.
Other treatment options may include hormone therapy. While controversial, low dose hormone therapy may help some women cope with menopause symptoms while reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Most medications slow bone breakdown. Healthy bones will continue to break down and rebuild as usual.
Lifestyle changes will also be recommended. Medication alone often isn’t enough to completely stave off the complications of this disease. Lifestyle changes may include:
- Eating a healthy diet that ensures you get enough vitamin D and calcium.
- Exercising regularly. Weight-bearing exercises improve posture and balance while strengthening bones. The more active you are as you age, the less likely you are to fall and break a bone.
- Limiting alcohol intake. Drinking in moderation is okay.
- Quitting smoking. Smoking accelerates bone loss.