Typically, we can’t feel what is happening inside our bones. Yet throughout our life, cells are continually updating the microscopic framework that keeps our bones healthy. Like a never-ending reconstruction project, old bone is broken down and replaced daily with new bone.

From birth to the age of 25, our bodies produce more new bone than they break down, increasing bone density. From around age 25 to 50, bone density tends to stay stable with an equal amount of bone production and bone breakdown. After age 50, bone breakdown becomes faster than bone production, and bone loss often accelerates. Factors such as hormonal changes or deficiency of calcium or vitamin D can cause a decline in bone mineral density, leading to osteoporosis.

More than 54 million Americans either have osteoporosis or are at high risk of developing it, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Individuals with osteoporosis often experience loss in height, stooped posture and a higher risk of bone fractures.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do at all ages to help prevent and treat osteoporosis. It is vital to understand the risk factors and causes associated with this condition.

What is osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a chronic disease of the bones. The name is Latin for “porous bones.”

The inside of a healthy bone has small spaces, like a honeycomb. Osteoporosis causes these spaces to grow larger. When bones have more open space inside them, they lose strength and density. The outside of the bone also becomes weaker and thinner. Patients with osteoporosis have bones that break down quicker than they can rebuild.

This deterioration of bone tissue leads to increased risk of broken bones, known as fragility fractures. People with osteoporosis can suffer a fragility fracture while doing routine activities such as standing or walking.

Osteoporosis most commonly affects your ribs, hips and bones in your wrists and spine.

Causes, risk factors and diagnosis

Most people reach their highest bone density and mass in their early 20s. Although it can occur, most people under 50 are not at high risk for osteoporosis. Individuals who are 50 and older are at the highest risk for developing the disease.

Age and gender are the two most common risk factors for osteoporosis. Women are at a higher risk, because they typically have smaller, thinner bones than men. Hormonal changes in women over 50 also have a role to play. Estrogen, that occurs naturally in women, helps contribute to strong bones. When a women moves through menopause, she many experience lower estrogen levels, which can lead to faster bone breakdown and result in weak, brittle bones.

Other factors that increase the chance of developing osteoporosis include:

  • Family history
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Long-term corticosteroid use
  • Diseases of malabsorption
  • Low body mass index
  • Certain medications such as proton pump inhibitors and some seizure medications
  • Malnutrition
  • Certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or multiple myeloma

Osteoporosis is diagnosed in many ways. One way to assess if a person is at risk of osteoporosis or fracture is a DEXA scan. A DEXA scan is a non-invasive test that measures bone mineral density. DEXA scans are performed at outpatient imaging facilities but need to be ordered by a doctor.

Osteoporosis treatments

While there is no cure for osteoporosis, there are numerous treatments involving lifestyle modifications and medications. 

The most aggressive way to treat osteoporosis is with prescription medications, including:

  • Alendronate
  • Ibandronate
  • Risedronate
  • Zoledronic acid
  • Denosumab
  • Hormone-related medications

For women in menopause, hormone replacement therapy is another treatment option. Typically doctors won’t use it as a first treatment option because it can increase the risk of breast cancer, stroke and blood clots.

Even for patients taking medication for osteoporosis, doctors recommend getting plenty of vitamin D and calcium in your diet. Calcium is the mineral needed to maintain healthy bones, and vitamin D helps the body absorb the calcium it needs. This mineral and vitamin together can help slow bone deterioration.

These calcium-rich foods can help counteract the effects of osteoporosis:

  • dairy products
  • enriched grains and breads
  • dark green vegetables
  • soy products

Preventing osteoporosis

Although there are many risk factors for osteoporosis that are out of your control, the good news is there are many things you can do to help prevent bone deterioration. With these lifestyle practices, you can be proactive in maintaining strong, healthy bones:

  • Consume plenty of calcium and vitamin D in your diet
  • Participate in weight-bearing exercises
  • Quit smoking

Also try these easy tips for strengthening bones.

If you or a loved one is at risk for developing osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about the best way to prevent it. Cary Orthopaedics’ physicians utilize the latest medical science to treat all types of bone conditions and joint injuries. Contact Cary Orthopaedics today for an appointment in Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville or Holly Springs.