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Osteoporosis 101: What Women Need to Know About This Silent Disease

Ladies, it’s time to talk about the silent disease that affects millions of women every year: osteoporosis. It may not sound like a big deal, but this condition can lead to debilitating fractures and chronic pain, making everyday tasks a challenge. Below, we give you the lowdown on what osteoporosis is, who’s at risk, its symptoms and how to prevent it from becoming a problem in your life. 

Why Are Women More at Risk of Osteoporosis?

As we age, both men and women can lose bone density, putting them at risk for osteoporosis. But this “silent disease” is more common in women. In fact, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, about 80 percent of people with osteoporosis are women. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Women have less bone mass than men to start with, and  during the years when bones are most dense (ages 20 to 30), women lose bone mass while men continue to add to theirs.
  2. After menopause, estrogen levels drop sharply. This hormone helps keep bones strong, so without it, bones can break down more easily.

Other risk factors for osteoporosis include being small and thin, having a family history of the disease, smoking cigarettes, and drinking too much alcohol.

How to Identify Risk for Fracture Early

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle. It can happen without any symptoms.  There are steps you can take to help prevent osteoporosis or slow its progression. One of the most important is to identify your risk for fracture early. 

There are several factors that can increase your risk for osteoporotic fractures. These include:

Family history: If you have a parent or grandparent with osteoporosis, you may be more likely to develop the disease yourself.

Small frame: People with small frames tend to have less bone mass and are therefore at greater risk for osteoporosis. 

Early menopause: Women who experience menopause before age 45 are at increased risk for osteoporosis. 

Ethnicity: While Caucasian and Asian people are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, Hispanic and African Americans are at a lower, yet still significant risk.

What Are Bone Density Tests and How Can They Help?

Bone density tests measure the strength of your bones. They can help predict your risk for fractures (breaks) and show how well your current treatment is working.

A bone density test uses X-rays to measure how many grams of calcium and other minerals are in a segment of bone. The bones that are most often tested are in the spine, hip, and forearm.

Are There Ways of Strengthening Bones to Prevent Fractures?

There are several ways to help prevent osteoporosis and the fractures that can result from the disease. These include: 

  • Getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Adults need 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium a day (depending on age), and 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D daily. 
  • Exercising regularly. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, running, stair climbing, tennis, and dancing help maintain bone density. Resistance training has also been shown to strengthen bones.
  • Not smoking and limiting alcohol intake.

Which Foods Increase Bone Density in Women? 

Many foods are high in calcium, including leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale; nuts and seeds such as almonds and sunflower seeds; tofu; fish with edible bones such as sardines and salmon; and dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt (although animal protein has been shown to leach calcium from your bones). A registered dietitian can help you create a meal plan that includes these foods and other nutrient-rich foods to help keep your bones healthy.