Boning Up on Osteoporosis

Embracing change isn’t always easy, especially those transformations that affect or challenge our health. But, like it or not, chemical, biological and physiological changes take place as we age, and understanding these processes helps us maintain our quality of life and even prolong our years on earth.

As we grow older, new bone is made and old bone is broken down. When we’re young, our body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone, increasing bone mass. Most people reach their peak bone mass around age 30. After that, we lose more bone mass than we gain.

Osteoporosis, which affects more than 53 million Americans, is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, making them easier to fracture or break. Our likelihood of developing osteoporosis depends on how much bone mass we attain by the time we reach age 30 and how rapidly we lose it after that. The higher our peak bone mass, the less likely we are to develop osteoporosis as we age.

Osteoporosis affects the structure and strength of bones and makes fractures more likely, especially in the spine, hip and wrists. It is most common among females after menopause, but smoking and poor diet increase the risk for women and men. There are often no clear outward symptoms, but weakening of the spine may lead to a stoop, and there may be bone pain.

We can build strong bones by getting enough calcium and weight-bearing physical activity during our teen years and into our early 20s, when bones are growing the fastest. Young people in this age group have calcium needs that they can’t make up for later in life. In the years of peak skeletal growth, teenagers build more than 25 percent of adult bone. By the time teens finish their growth spurts around age 18, 90 percent of their adult bone mass is established.

It’s important to understand that our bodies continually remove and replace small amounts of calcium from our bones, so stemming the loss of calcium is important. After our late teens, however, we can’t add more calcium to bones, but can try to maintain what is already stored to help our bones stay healthy.

Keeping Our Bones Healthy and Strong

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. Low-fat and fat-free milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium. Teens can get most of their daily calcium from three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, but they also need additional servings of calcium to get the 1,300 mg necessary for strong bones.

Other good sources of calcium include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and bok choy.  Other sources of calcium include almonds, broccoli, kale, canned salmon with bones, sardines and soy products such as tofu.

There also are foods with calcium added, such as calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, soy beverages, and breakfast cereals or breads. Adults or kids who can’t process lactose also can take calcium supplements, but should check with their physician to ensure compatibility with other medicines or conditions.

When muscles push and tug against bones during physical activity, bones and muscles become stronger. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, tennis and climbing stairs can help build strong bones and slow bone loss. So, exercise as well as proper nutrition play vital roles in helping us build and maintain healthy bones at any age.

A number of additional factors can affect bone health. For example:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use.Research suggests that tobacco use contributes to weak bones. Similarly, having more than two alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of osteoporosis, possibly because alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  • Gender, size and age.You’re at greater risk of osteoporosis if you’re a woman, because women have less bone tissue than do men. You’re also at risk if you’re extremely thin (with a body mass index of 19 or less) or have a small body frame, because you may have less bone mass to draw from as you age. Also, our bones become thinner and weaker as we age.
  • Race and family history.You’re at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you’re white or of Asian descent. In addition, having a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis puts you at greater risk — especially if you also have a family history of fractures.
  • Hormone levels.Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. In women, bone loss increases dramatically at menopause due to dropping estrogen levels. Prolonged absence of menstruation before menopause also increases the risk of osteoporosis. In men, low testosterone levels can cause a loss of bone mass.
  • Eating disorders and other conditions.People who have anorexia or bulimia are at risk of bone loss. In addition, stomach surgery (gastrectomy), weight-loss surgery and conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and Cushing’s disease can affect our body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  • Certain medications.Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, are damaging to bone. Other drugs that may increase the risk of osteoporosis include aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications and proton pump inhibitors.

If you find it difficult to get enough calcium from your diet, ask your doctor about supplements. Pay attention to foods with vitamin D, include physical activity in your daily routine, and avoid smoking tobacco products or drinking too much alcohol. We can’t get back what we’ve lost when it comes to calcium, but we can do much to minimize future loss and protect our bones and overall wellness.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!