Preventing osteoporosis: What you need to know about the ‘silent disease’

Nov 19, 2019
Osteoporosis is a common problem that affects 1.2 million Australians. Source: Getty

It’s no secret that bone health becomes increasingly important as we age. That’s because our bones naturally become more brittle and prone to breakage as the years go by.

But, if we don’t take vital steps to keep our bones healthy, bone loss can lead to osteoporosis, where bones become thin, weak and fragile, such that even a minor bump or fall can cause a fracture.

Starts at 60 spoke to Dr Ginni Mansberg to find out more about the serious condition and what you can do about it.

Osteoporosis explained

Osteoporosis is a common problem that affects 1.2 million Australians, most of whom aren’t aware they have the disease, the Sydney-based GP explains. It occurs when our bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, resulting in a loss of bone density.

Osteoporosis is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’ because there are usually no obvious symptoms until a fracture occurs, which can be potentially life-threatening.

“[Around] 50 per cent of people who have a hip fracture will end up… in a nursing home,” Mansberg warns. “[Meanwhile], 15 per cent will die within four months of the fracture.”

That’s why a bone density test is super important. A Medicare rebate is available for people 70 years or over, who have an overactive thyroid, coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, liver or kidney disease, previously diagnosed with osteoporosis and women with early menopause, she explains.

“… if anyone reads this and thinks ‘I don’t know if I should be having a bone density scan’ go [and] talk to your doctor [about it].”

And while there are no symptoms of the condition, Mansberg explains that a loss of height is a sign of a spine fracture, which may be caused by osteoporosis.

Risk factors

There are many risk factors that may increase your chances of developing osteoporosis, and age is one of them. The older you are, the greater your risk of osteoporosis.

Statistically, osteoporosis is more common in women, according to Mansberg, because oestrogen levels – which protect against bone loss – rapidly decline during menopause. Studies suggest that one in three women will suffer a bone fracture due to osteoporosis.

“[For some women], the vast majority of bone loss happens in the first four years after menopause,” she explains.

A family history of osteoporosis may also make you more susceptible to the condition, as can inadequate amounts of dietary calcium, low vitamin D levels, lack of physical exercise and early menopause. People who drink heavily or smoke are also more likely to develop osteoporosis.

How to prevent osteoporosis

The good news is osteoporosis is largely preventable. Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of calcium, getting adequate vitamin D and performing regular, weight-bearing exercises are all important for healthy bones.

Don’t know where to start? Some examples of moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, water aerobics, ballroom dancing and gardening. It’s also important to incorporate weight training into your weekly fitness routine.

Mansberg also recommends hazard-proofing your home to prevent the risk of falling. Secure loose rugs or bathmats with doubled-sided tape, repair loose floorboards and carpeting or add a hand rail in the shower.

“If you feel like you’re not steady on your feet or mum isn’t steady on her feet, I would strongly suggest getting someone to walk through your house and look for trigger points,” she advises.

While there’s no cure for osteoporosis, the same lifestyle changes used to prevent it may help to slow down its progression. It’s a good idea to consult a doctor who can prescribe medications to help treat osteoporosis and reduce the risk of fractures.

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