Osteoporosis is not only a condition suffered by elderly women

Osteoporosis is not only a condition suffered by elderly women World Osteoporosis Day is observed annually on 20 October and provides a good opportunity to learn more about this condition. Most people associate osteoporosis with elderly women, but the reality is that both men and women suffer from the condition. Men who are more vulnerable include those who have a slender build, have been on steroids or cortisone or who have over-exercised before the age of 25.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition characterised by low bone mass and loss of bone tissue. After the age of about 30, bone thinning is a natural process and cannot be stopped. Whether you develop osteoporosis depends not only on the thickness of your bones early in life but also on your health, diet, and physical activity later in life.

If you get osteoporosis, you have an increased risk for fractured bones. Post menopausal women are especially vulnerable to the disease as oestrogen plays a vital role in maintaining bone density. When oestrogen levels drop after menopause, bone loss accelerates. During the first five to 10 years after menopause, women can suffer up to 2%-4% loss of bone density per year. Accelerated bone loss after menopause is a major cause of osteoporosis in women.

Who is most at risk?

All women aged 55 and older are at risk. In addition, younger postmenopausal women with one or more risk factors, or those with late onset or irregular periods as teenagers (especially if attributed to excessive sport) should be closely monitored.

However, both men and women can get the disease. Men and women of Caucasian or Asian race, cigarette smokers, those who consume excessive alcohol, those with poor exercise, a diet low in calcium, with poor general health (especially Vitamin D deficiency) are especially vulnerable.

In addition, those with a history of eating disorders, prone to bone fractures, who are being treated with chemotherapy, or suffer from any condition that interferes with walking should be tested.

In some cases, prescribed medications can be the cause of osteoporosis. Body builders using steroids are at risk, as well as those who have been prescribed heparin (a blood thinner),cortisone, (commonly prescribed for asthma), are taking thyroid medication as well as some anti-seizure medications. Side effects of these medicines can cause the mal-absorption of essential nutrients, leading to bone deficiency.

What is a bone density test?

A bone density test indicates whether you have osteoporosis or are at risk of osteoporosis. In the past, osteoporosis could only be detected after you broke a bone. By that time, however, your bones could be quite weak. A bone density test makes it possible to know your risk of breaking bones before the fact, and if necessary, start a programme to build bone strength.

A bone density test uses X-rays to measure how many grams of calcium and other bone minerals are packed into a segment of bone. The test is a fairly accurate predictor of your risk of fracture.

The measurement process is painless, non-invasive and involves minimal radiation exposure. Patients can be tested fully clothed. It is normal for the bone density radiographer to take about four images in a 30 minute period. Measurements are most commonly made over the lumbar spine and pelvis. As a last resort, the forearm is used.

When should women be tested?

Women should have a bone density test in their early 40s, and then a follow up a year after menopause. The frequency of follow up testing should be guided by a doctor.

Treatment

A bone density test may reveal osteoporosis or its pre-condition, osteopenia, a condition where bone mineral density is lower than normal but not critical. Once osteoporosis is present, a high dietary calcium intake or taking calcium supplements alone is generally not sufficient to treating osteoporosis. There are a number of prescription drugs which can help to build up bone density.

Treatments for osteoporosis, in addition to prescription osteoporosis medications, include reduction of alcohol and cigarette use, and assuring adequate exercise, calcium, and vitamin D.

Acknowledgements

This article was written after consulting a diagnostic radiographer at the Arwyp Bone Density Clinic. She has had 30 years experience as a radiographer. Other sources include information from the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases website.