A woman stops growing new bone at around age 30. If she does not take steps to maintain good bone health when she is young, she is at risk as she ages for a bone disease called osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a thinning and weakening of bones so that normal activities such as lifting a box or getting out of bed can cause serious fractures.
Each year, 1.5 million people are hospitalized from fractures related to osteoporosis, and 15 to 20 percent die of complications related to the breaks. While treatment for osteoporosis has improved over the past 10 years, the best advice is still to avoid the illness if you can.
"The more bone you can lay down by 30 — the more bone you maintain through your 30s and 40s — the more bone you will have available to lose as you age," explains Robert Lash, Clinical Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, MI.
Tips to Avoid Osteoporosis
"There are a lot of things a young woman can do to lower her risk," Lash says. His advice includes:
Make sure you get enough calcium. A teaspoon of cream in your coffee is not enough. Women should be getting at least three servings a day of calcium rich food like milk, yogurt and cheese.
Take a daily multi-vitamin. This will increase your calcium and your vitamin D, another mineral that is crucial for good bone health.
Stay fit and exercise. "Lots of people think that the only weight-bearing exercises matter," says Lash. "They may be best for bones, but any sort of exercise will help keep bones strong."
Know your risk. Women with a family history of osteoporosis are at higher risk for developing the disorder. "If you are a 45 year old woman whose mother has lost five inches off her height and suffered a hip fracture, you want to get checked sooner rather than later to make sure you are not in the early stages of osteoporosis," Lash explains.
Consider having a bone-density scan, especially after menopause. "Women 20-40 years probably don't need to have a test yet," says Lash. "But as you age, a bone density test can tell you how much bone you have and whether you should start treatment."
A bone density scan is a low-level X-ray that can be performed with your clothes on and only takes about 10 minutes. "And the result may be good news," Lash notes. "Your bones may be strong and you may not need any medication."
Treatment for Osteoporosis
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, doctors generally prescribe drugs to slow down the rate of bone turnover and prevent further bone loss. The best known is a pill called Fosamax (alendronate), which works by directly targeting the cells that cause bone turnover.
This week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that 10 years of Fosamax therapy is both safe and effective at preventing the erosion of bone strength. Unfortunately, the study also finds that even five years of Fosamax treatment does not prevent bone loss if a woman stops taking the drug. On the upside, because long-term use of Fosamax appears safe, women can stay on it for many years.
For advanced osteoporosis, there are some new treatments that actually help regrow lost bone. Anabolic therapy to induce new bone growth has had some success, but it must be injected under the skin daily.
"The best treatment we have is still prevention," concludes Lash.