Were we wrong about osteoporosis treatments?

To get the best out of our lives we know that we have to take care of ourselves. We’ve got to watch what we eat, take the dog round the block, and be proactive about our health.

There are some diseases that are associated with ageing and osteoporosis is one of them. It affects over 1 million people in Australia. Osteoporosis makes bones become brittle leading to a higher risk of breaks than in normal bone and it happens when bones lose minerals, such as calcium.

Older women are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis because of the rapid decline in oestrogen levels during menopause. When oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate. As a result a bone loss occurs for several years after menopause. Traditionally the treatment and the prevention has been to do weight bearing exercise and take calcium supplements.

But what if we’re wrong about osteoporosis treatments? That’s a question that has been asked by ABC Radio National’s Health Report.

Health Report points to new evidence that pharmaceutical products and supplements widely used to manage osteoporosis have been slammed by two recent studies, with researchers citing industry links as the reason advocacy groups continue to support such treatments.

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The program interviewed Associate Professor Andrew Grey, an endocrinologist at the University of Auckland, who says, ‘Neither calcium nor vitamin D nor their combination are safely effective in promoting bone health in older adults.’

In a paper published in the British Medical Journal, Grey and his colleague, Mark Bollard, argue that calcium and vitamin D supplements, which are widely recommended to protect ageing bones against breaking, are ineffective.

‘Calcium by itself—that’s as a tablet supplement—slightly decreases fracture risk, but that benefit is balanced by a number of harms, so that overall there is no net benefit. And vitamin D by itself just doesn’t have any benefit.’

Meanwhile in a separate article also published in the BMJ, Dr Barbara Mintzes from the University of Sydney and her colleagues argue that prescription medications called bisphosphonates widely used to treat osteoporosis are overprescribed. The findings are controversial and have come under fire from several organisations, including Osteoporosis Australia, who describe Mintzes’ claims as ‘sensationalist and not based on fact’.

Combined, the papers question many widely held beliefs about the best way to prevent and manage osteoporosis.

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The best way to get up-to-date information that’s relevant to you is to see your family doctor, and you should never stop treatment prescribed by your doctor without first discussing it with them.

Are you on treatment for osteoporosis or taking calcium as a preventative measure? Will this new research make you rethink the way you are dealing with osteoporosis?