Osteoporosis, or chronic bone thinning, affects more than one million Australians. While it can begin at any age, it is most common in those over the age of 50. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk later in life.
The condition occurs when bones lose mass, becoming fragile and brittle, leaving them much more susceptible to fractures, especially in areas like the hip, spine and wrist. Osteoporosis not only leads to broken bones; it can result in loss of independence and chronic pain.
Unlike other medical conditions, it’s known as the ‘silent disease’, as there are no symptoms before a fracture occurs. I have had patients as young as teenagers tell me their bones ‘feel fine’ only to show low bone density on a bone-density scan, otherwise known as a DEXA scan.
A DEXA scan of the hip and spine is used to aid diagnosis of osteoporosis. This is a non-invasive, quiet, painless test – and you can wear normal clothes for it, so long as they don’t contain metal.
Osteoporosis Australia (OA) recommends having a DEXA scan done if you’re over the age of 50 and have suffered a fracture due to a minor bump or fall, or younger if you have known risk factors. The scan will tell you if you have normal bone density, low bone density (osteopaenia – placing you at risk of osteoporosis), or osteoporosis. The Heel Ultrasound test, which is often done in pharmacies, is not recommended by OA to predict risk.
There are many ways you can give both yourself and your family the best chance of maintaining strong bones for longer – and the sooner you start, the better.
First up is calcium. As you are probably aware, this important mineral is crucial in maintaining bone health. In fact, 99% of calcium within the body is found in bone. But besides being used by the bones for strength and structure, calcium is also important in blood clotting, and muscle and nerve function. These latter roles are so important that if calcium levels in the blood decrease (due to inadequate calcium intake), the body removes calcium from the skeleton. In this way, the bones act as a ‘bank’ of calcium – when dietary calcium is abundant, the body is able to invest more calcium in the bones.
The skeleton is naturally always being remodeled (that is, losing and gaining bone), but it is when bone loss exceeds bone gain that bone thinning occurs. Here, the trick is to ensure enough calcium is absorbed on a daily basis, so that you build on that ‘bone bank’ as much as possible – think of it as your bone ‘super fund’.
Secondly, Vitamin D is an excellent accompaniment, as it assists the absorption of calcium in the intestines, is important for maintenance and growth of a healthy skeleton, and keeps a check on calcium and phosphorus levels in your blood. And then there’s the mineral, phosphorus. It works closely with calcium to ensure strong bones and teeth, and is essential for the body to use other vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D, magnesium and zinc. Magnesium and zinc also have important roles in the structural development of bone. Suffice to say it’s a real team effort when it comes to building strong bones.
By Alison Walsh BSc (Physiol), BA (Psych), M.Nutr & Dietetics, Grad Cert Sports Nutr, Cert of Paed Nutr & Dietetics, APD
Editor’s note: We often neglect the health of our bones until it’s too late. Dietitian Alison Walsh highlights the importance of calcium when it comes to preventing osteoporosis.