Osteoporosis is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’ because, although almost 3 million people in the UK are estimated to have osteoporosis, worryingly few people know they have it until they break a bone. There are more than 300,000 fractures every year due to osteoporosis.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a progressive condition that leads to more fragile bones as you get older. Fragile bones are more likely to break easily, and bones in your wrist, hip and spine are particularly vulnerable.
Bone is a living tissue and new bone replaces old bone throughout life. But in later life, the cells that build new bone can’t work as quickly as the cells that remove old bone. This leads to an overall loss of bone tissue, which makes bones weaker and more fragile.
For women, the hormone oestrogen helps protect bone strength. The reduction in oestrogen in the years following menopause causes a rapid bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis.
About 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men over 50 will break a bone (fracture) because of osteoporosis so it is important to keep your bones healthy.
What affects your risk of osteoporosis?
There is no single cause of osteoporosis. Your risk of developing it is linked to factors that can lead to weak bones, which include:
- Family history – you are more likely to have osteoporosis if you have a family history of osteoporosis or if one of your parents has broken a hip
- Being over 50 years old
- Gender – osteoporosis is more common in women because they have smaller bones and lose oestrogen during menopause
- Low body weight (i.e. having a body mass index of less than 19)
- Certain medical conditions – such as rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and Crohn's disease
- Certain medications – such as steroids and some treatments for Crohn's disease
- Unhealthy lifestyle – low physical activity, smoking, excessive alcohol, lack of calcium and vitamin D.
What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?
Unfortunately osteoporosis has no symptoms and you can’t feel your bones getting weaker. This means that osteoporosis usually goes undetected until you break a bone.
There are some signs that you can look out for which can mean the bones in your back have weakened. If you notice any of the following then it is best to speak to your doctor:
- severe back pain
- your spine has become curved
- you have lost height.
How is osteoporosis treated?
Osteoporosis treatments may include prescription medications, calcium and vitamin D supplements, and lifestyle changes.
Medications are commonly prescribed if you are diagnosed with osteoporosis. They will help strengthen your bones gradually over time and prevent fractures.
What types of exercises are best for my bones?
Weight-bearing exercises are the best for your bones. Examples of weight-bearing exercises involve standing up and moving your feet and legs – brisk walking, dancing and running.
Making your muscles stronger can protect bones and improve balance. Muscle-strengthening exercises don’t have to involve you lifting weights at a gym. There are simple, gentle exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home.
How else can I look after my bones?
Eat calcium-rich foods
Calcium is the main building block for bones and gives bones their strength and structure. Our body’s ability to absorb calcium reduces as we get older, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough calcium in later life.
Eating calcium-rich foods is the best way to get calcium into your body. It’s recommended that adults have 700mg of calcium each day. Calcium-rich foods include milk, cheese, yoghurt and calcium enriched soya products, leafy green vegetables and dried fruit. Try adding some calcium-rich foods into your meals or have them as a snack. Speak with your doctor if you think you’re not getting enough calcium from foods. You may need to take a calcium supplement.
Make sure you get enough vitamin D
Vitamin D helps your bones absorb calcium. If you don’t get enough vitamin D then your body doesn’t absorb the calcium needed for strong bones.
The main source of vitamin D is from our skin’s exposure to sunlight. Most people get enough vitamin D in summer by spending short amounts of time in the sun without sunscreen. You shouldn’t let your skin redden or burn. A small amount of vitamin D is found naturally in some foods (e.g. oily fish, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals).
Most people don’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight in winter and it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone. Speak with your GP who may recommend you take a vitamin D supplement every day.
Maintain a healthy body weight
Keeping a healthy body weight can help to keep your bones healthy. Low body weight means you have smaller bones which tend to be more fragile. It also means there’s little body fat and muscle to protect you if you fall.
If you’re malnourished, as well as not getting enough energy from your diet, you may not be eating enough nutrients that help build healthy bones.
Quit smoking and cut your alcohol intake
Research shows that both smoking and regularly drinking too much alcohol can lead to bone loss and increases risk of a broken bone. Smoking in any amount is bad for bones.
If you’ve been a smoker or heavy drinker in the past then your bones may have been weakened to some extent. Getting enough calcium and vitamin D, taking regular exercise and having a healthy weight are essential.