The Backbone of Bone Health - Part 1

In this first of two parts on bone health, we will look at osteoporosis, its risks, and some of the steps you can take to prevent it.

While there are a number of conditions that can affect your bones, osteoporosis, or porous bone, is by far the most common condition. So, in talking about bone health, this is where we will focus our attention.

First, the bad news. Osteoporosis is a common, potentially devastating disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break. It is estimated that 10 million people (eight million women, two million men) already have osteoporosis and almost 34 million more are believed to have low bone mass, placing them at increased risk.

Approximately one in two women and one in four men over age 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their remaining lifetime. These osteoporosis-related fractures are responsible for an estimated $19 billion in costs each year.

There are a number of risk factors that can determine in part, how likely you are to get osteoporosis. The ones that cannot be changed are:
• Gender - Women have less bone mass than men in general, and can lose up to 20 percent of their bone mass in the five to seven years after menopause, making them more susceptible to osteoporosis.
• Preexisting health issues – Including a history of eating disorders, kidney disease and overactive thyroid
• Age – The older you are, the more time the bone has to "thin out"
• Body size - Small, thin-boned individuals are at greater risk.
• Ethnicity – Caucasian and Asian women are more susceptible than other nationalities
• Family history of osteoporosis and bone fractures

While some of the osteoporosis risk factors, such as gender, age, ethnicity and genetics can't be changed, other important lifestyle factors are within your control. The good news is there are a number of things you can do to prevent, delay or halt the progression of osteoporosis.

Eliminate the "calcium robbers" from your lifestyle.
There are a number of things that actually leech calcium from our bones, making them more susceptible to osteoporosis. Here are some things you can do to reduce bone loss from these "robbers."
• Don't smoke and avoid second-hand smoke
• Limit alcohol consumption
• Avoid sweets, sugar and junk food
• Limit salt intake
• Limit soft drinks (including decaffeinated and diet) and coffee; drink tea instead
• Avoid taking steroids, if possible, and unnecessary thyroid medication
• Avoid aluminum intake (even from antacids)
• Don't consistently consume excessive amounts of protein

Engage in consistent weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercise.
You can actually build bone mass by regularly participating in weight-bearing exercise. Bones have the unique ability to adjust their mass in response to pressure and stress, so the more you work your bones, the stronger they will become.

The best exercise for your bones is weight-bearing exercise such as walking, dancing, jogging, stair-climbing, weight-lifting, racquet sports and hiking. Getting the bone-building benefits can be as simple as 45 minutes of walking three to five times a week, or walking briskly for 30 minutes every day. Just find activities you enjoy and will do consistently. If you haven't been exercising recently, you can work up to those goals, and be sure to stretch, warm up and cool down every time.

Adopt the Mediterranean diet.

The, Mediterranean diet mentioned on this site often, is not only good for your cardiovascular, immune and digestive systems, but also for your bones.

Of course the "calcium robbers" listed above aren't part of this diet, which instead includes a number of foods that are calcium-rich. In addition, the Mediterranean diet features many foods that are high in plant-derived estrogens, or phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens have an effect similar to estrogen therapy, helping to prevent bone loss and decrease osteoporosis.

Involve your healthcare practitioner.
Because osteoporosis is a silent disease, often with no early symptoms, it is important to find out early if your bones are becoming weaker so that you can take additional preventive steps, or explore treatment options, if necessary.

A bone mineral density test can detect low bone density and diagnose osteoporosis. The testing is safe and painless and can be done on different bones of your body, including your hip, spine, forearm, wrist, finger or heel. Your doctor may recommend getting tested based on your risk factors and age.

The last critical lifestyle component to protecting your bones and preventing osteoporosis is nutrition. This will be the focus of the next article, The Backbone of Bone Health - Part 2.