Are you at risk of osteoporosis?
If you are a woman going through the menopause, you could be at risk of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis can affect anyone although women over 50 are most at risk due to falling levels of the bone-protecting hormone oestrogen during the peri-menopause and menopause.
More than three million people in the UK are affected and as many as half of women over 50 will break a bone due to the condition. It can be a very painful and debilitating disease.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become less dense and more fragile so that they break more easily. Your body naturally replaces bone tissue until your 30s when this process starts to slow down. By your 50s, more bone may be broken down than is replaced, unless you take action to improve your bone health.
Osteoporosis is often known as a ‘silent’ disease as there are no outward symptoms and it is often difficult to know you have it until you suffer a fracture. Other signs include stooped posture, a loss of height and back pain caused by collapsed vertebra in the spine.
Why is it important to do something about it?
Osteoporosis can have a serious impact on your health, quality of life and even how long you live.
Around half a million people receive hospital treatment for fractures due to the disease in the UK every year and suffering a fracture can have a serious outcome: as many as one in four elderly people die within a year of fracturing their hip, for example.
Even if you recover, recent research from the University of California found that suffering a fracture reduces bone density elsewhere in the body.
This is why it is so important to protect your bone health and it is never too late to start. So, what can you do to reduce your risk of osteoporosis? Read our top tips below to find out:
Know your risk: Knowing your risk factors can help you make the necessary lifestyle changes to protect your bones as you get older. A family history of osteoporosis, premature menopause under the age of 45, going through the menopause, inactivity, poor diet, smoking and heavy alcohol consumption can all increase your risk as can certain conditions such as thyroid problems and Crohn’s disease. Seek advice from a health professional if you think you may be at risk.
Have a scan: If you consider yourself at risk, you may wish to have a DEXA scan (Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) or bone density scan to check your bone density. This can be arranged by your GP and is available at Hormone Health.
Try hormone replacement therapy (HRT): oestrogen keeps bones strong. Women are four times more likely than men to get osteoporosis because levels of oestrogen fall after the menopause. Numerous studies have found that the oestrogen in HRT protects against brittle bones and bone fractures, by stimulating bone formation and reducing bone loss.
As Dr Tina Peers, a consultant in women’s health, points out: “We all need to invest in our health today and for the future, so that we can look forward to a long, healthy life. Osteoporosis is a painful and debilitating disease that HRT can help prevent and treat. As more of us live into our 80s and 90s, prevention of osteoporosis is of critical importance for families, individuals and for the NHS.”
Quit smoking: Smoking has an impact on bone-building cells. Studies show smokers have a lower bone mass than non-smokers and women who smoke may produce less oestrogen and experience the menopause at a younger age.
Curb the alcohol: alcohol may affect the body’s ability to absorb calcium which is important for healthy bones. Stick to safe levels of drinking, which according to UK government advice is less than 14 units week.
Stay off the fizz: cut back on fizzy drinks. They can leach minerals from your bones, making them weaker.
Check your hormone levels: declining levels of oestrogen, during the peri-menopause and menopause, and too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. If you are concerned about your hormonal health, seek advice from a health professional.
Eat yoghurt: A study from Trinity College Dublin found people aged 60 and over who ate plain yoghurt daily had a three to four per cent increase in bone density. Yoghurt is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, both needed for strong bones.
Stay active: Research shows maintaining bone and muscle strength significantly reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones as we age. Any weight-bearing exercise where you work against gravity helps to build strong bones. So running, dance classes, tennis, aerobics, netball and even a brisk walk, for example, are all beneficial. Building muscle and strength training also helps so try Pilates, use elastic resistance bands or try body-conditioning classes.
Have some sun: Sunlight on the skin helps the body produce vitamin D which is essential for your body to absorb calcium for strong bones. According to Public Health England, a fifth of people show worrying levels of vitamin D during autumn and winter. Expose yourself to sunshine in summer months safely – all that is needed is five or 10 minutes. In winter, you may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
Eat well: Calcium and vitamin D are needed for healthy bones and experts say eating foods rich in these nutrients is better than taking supplements as food also contain other beneficial nutrients such as magnesium and vitamin K. Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish, eggs, cheese and fortified juice and cereals. Low-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium, as are green leafy vegetables and bony fish such as sardines. If you take dairy alternatives, such as soya milk or nut milk, check that they are supplemented with calcium. If you cannot get enough calcium from your food, you can try a low-dose calcium supplement.
Limit caffeine: caffeine causes the body to excrete calcium so try herbal teas or decaffeinated drinks instead.
Watch your weight: Being very thin or very overweight can both have an impact on your bone health. Try to keep to a healthy weight for your build and height.
Count your steps: you could invest in a pedometer (or other fitness tracker) to keep track of your activity levels. Having a very sedentary job can affect bone health and giving yourself goals each day and tracking your progress may motivate you to become more active.
Check your medication: Some medicines can have adverse effects on your bone health. For example, corticosteroids, prescribed for inflammatory forms of arthritis, can decrease the amount of calcium absorbed in the body. If you need corticosteroids for a prolonged time, ask your doctor about medications to prevent or treat osteoporosis and for lifestyle advice.