In Health issues on Friday 4th Jun, 2021

‘I want to spend my 60s being a grandma, not worrying about breaking another bone’

Jun 04, 2021
An early osteoporosis diagnosis means Jennifer Gardner, who loves interior decorating, has been able to change her habits to protect her bones. No more shifting heavy furniture! (Image source: Supplied)

Becoming a grandparent is one of life’s greatest blessings; from trips to the playground and outings for ice cream to bedtime stories, it’s a chance for most over-60s to experience the fun bits of parenting without the stress!

That’s why being fit and healthy so they can enjoy their grandkids is a big priority for many older Australian women. It’s definitely the case for Jennifer Gardner, who’s looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild in July.

“So much happens when you become a parent for the first time and I know my daughter will need a break eventually, so I want to make sure I’m as healthy as I can be in order to support her,” Jennifer says.

It’s not just impending grandparenthood that’s motivating the 63-year-old to focus on her health and fitness though.

Jennifer is one of only 20 per cent of Australians whose osteoporosis is diagnosed after breaking a bone – 80 per cent do not get diagnosed despite breaking a bone. For Jennifer, that diagnosis happened at what many people would consider an unusually early age of 58. (That osteoporosis is a condition only experienced by ‘old ladies’ is one of the many myths that prevent more cases being diagnosed early.)

“It was dark, and I fell over a speed bump in a carpark, smashing one of my fingers,” she recalls. “When the doctors at the hospital saw how severe the fracture was and took my age and family history of osteoporosis into account, they sent me straight for a bone density scan.

“I was very lucky. The hospital also referred me to one of the professors there who has been taking care of me for the last five years.”

Jennifer was indeed lucky. It’s not unusual for the opportunity to diagnose osteoporosis to be missed, even when a bone break or fracture occurs. That’s despite the fact that the biggest risk predictor of an osteoporosis-related fracture is, in fact, having sustained a previous fragility fracture.

A bone break or fracture can, in turn, have life-changing consequences, including permanent disability.

That’s why the campaign called The Big O is focused on driving a proactive approach to diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, by arming women aged 50-plus with clear information about osteoporosis risk factors (there’s a quick online quiz you can take to get your own risk profile) and encouraging them to ask their doctor for a bone density scan, also known as a DEXA scan.

In Jennifer’s case, despite having a family history of osteoporosis, she thought she was too young to develop the condition, particularly since she lived an active lifestyle in an effort to combat any inherited disposition. But the DEXA bone density scan ordered by the hospital detected that Jennifer had early signs of osteoporosis, particularly around her hip.

“Since my diagnosis I’ve had a further two falls, fracturing both of my wrists,” she says. “With every fall, I worry that I’m going to have more, but I try to remain positive and upbeat about my situation and continue living a healthy and active lifestyle. I know I could have it much worse than I do.”

She credits the fact that her condition hasn’t worsened in five years, to her early diagnosis – which allowed her to make some important diet and activity changes to her lifestyle – and the great care she has received from her health care team.

“I knew I had to keep active and make the best of my time because I was retired, so walking, weight bearing and strengthening exercises, and plenty of vitamin D are all daily priorities for me now. Non-negotiables if you like,” Jennifer says.

“I’ve become more cautious about my day-to-day activity too,” she adds. “Heavy lifting and tasks like rearranging furniture at home, which I love to do, just aren’t possible for me anymore.”

While Jennifer is conscious that her condition could worsen as she gets older, she says she doesn’t allow that worry to consume her, and instead focuses on what she can do – especially with a grandchild on the way.

Jennifer (left), is confident her osteoporosis won’t stop her supporting her daughter, Libby (right), who is due with Jennifer’s first grandchild in July. (Image source: Supplied)

“I want to be around not only for the baby but to help my daughter too,” she says.

A bone density scan, as Jennifer had, is the only way osteoporosis can be diagnosed before a bone fracture or break occurs. The procedure, which takes just 10–15 minutes and is painless, provides a result called a T-score that a doctor can use to determine the risk of developing osteoporosis and recommend appropriate treatment if required.

For women who are unsure whether to ask their doctor for a bone density scan referral, The Big O recommends considering the checklist below – answering yes to any of the questions should be a prompt to ask for a scan. (The Big O’s online risk quiz can also help identify risk factors.)

  • Have you broken a bone since you turned 50?
  • Is there a family history of fractures or osteoporosis?
  • Have you noticed your posture changing, noticed yourself getting shorter or had back pain and didn’t know why?
  • Are you aged 70-plus and your doctor hasn’t checked your bone health in the past two years?
  • Have you been medically diagnosed with osteoporosis but are no longer on treatment?

While she’s very grateful to have been diagnosed when she did, Jennifer understands not all women are so lucky and wants to stress the importance of having bone density scans.

“I’d say to women my age and older, and even women younger than me, even if you think it’s nothing, have a scan done anyway. Don’t wait until you have a fall because who knows what your future will look like from that point on”.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

OVER 50 AND HAD A FRACTURE? YOU COULD HAVE THE BIG 0.

If you’ve fractured a bone since turning 50, have a family history of fractures and osteoporosis, lost height, or experienced unexplained back pain, you could have osteoporosis. It’s serious but it’s also treatable. Ask your doctor about a bone density scan today. And say no to The Big O.

Find out more

Are you surprised to learn that 58 isn’t ‘too young’ to have osteoporosis? Have you had an early diagnosis of a condition that’s had a positive impact on your health outlook?

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