Maintaining Bone Health Is Important for Healthy Aging

May 17, 2016

Vafa Tabatabaie, M.D.
U.S. News & World Report

Osteoporosis, literally "porous bones," is a disease that interrupts the natural rhythm of bone health by causing bone growth to slow, lose density or mass and develop an abnormal structure.

The bones in our bodies are an architectural wonder. They support the body and allow us to move in any number of ways and directions and at slow and fast speeds. Our bones also protect our other internal organs from injury. The human skeleton is both our best offense and defense in staying safe and secure.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, bone is a living, growing tissue made mostly of two biological materials that structure our frames and provide strength and hardness. This combination of materials allows bone to be both strong and flexible to protect our bodies. As our bones grow, they also shed off tissue as part of their intricate reshaping process. Osteoporosis, literally "porous bones," is a disease that interrupts the natural rhythm of bone health by causing bone growth to slow, lose density or mass and develop an abnormal structure. These affected bones are weak and are more likely to break.

May is an important month for taking account of your bone health, as it's National Osteoporosis Month. Contrary to popular belief, osteoporosis is not a part of normal aging. Older people are not supposed to have hunched backs or frequently broken bones. Osteoporosis is an insidious disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone or both. As a result, bones become weak and may break from a fall or, in serious cases, from sneezing or minor bumps.

I work as an endocrinologist (an expert specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the endocrine system, such as osteoporosis, thyroid disease and diabetes) at Montefiore Health System in the Bronx, New York, where we consider osteoporosis one of the greatest obstacles to healthy aging. If you think about your own bones as the architecture of your body, wouldn't you want to preserve that structure and repair it daily so it can keep you upright and moving forward in life?

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, an estimated 54 million U.S adults are at risk for osteoporosis and low bone mass – more than half of the U.S. adult population over age 50 is at risk of breaking a bone and should be concerned about bone health. For young people, proper nutrition and physical activity are critical to reaching peak bone mass and preventing broken bones later in life.

Breaking a bone is a serious complication of osteoporosis, especially with older patients. Osteoporosis causes bone to break most often in the hip, spine or wrist, but other bones can break too. Older people who sustain a fracture are at particularly high risk for sustaining subsequent fractures unless they are properly treated, putting undue stress on themselves and their loved ones.

Osteoporotic fractures may limit mobility, which often leads to feelings of isolation or depression. Additionally, 20 percent of seniors who break a hip die within one year from either complications related to the broken bone itself or the surgery to repair it. Many patients require long-term nursing home care.

Osteoporosis can be diagnosed before someone suffers a broken bone. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, your doctor can evaluate you to determine if you need a bone density test. The IOF has a one-minute online osteoporosis test you can take and then bring the results to your next doctor's appointment to discuss.

Osteoporosis can be diagnosed and treated before it leads to fracture. My patient, Mary Jones (not her real name), was diagnosed with osteoporosis five years ago when she was in her early 60s, after suffering a broken bone in her spine. Learning about her disease allowed Mary to better manage her bone health. In addition to taking prescription osteoporosis medications, Mary made lifestyle changes to both her diet and exercise regimen. The result is that many years later, at age 70, she remains self-sufficient and has not suffered any additional fractures. This is why it's important to stay on top of your bone health and speak with your personal physician about your risk in developing osteoporosis.

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