By Stephanie S. Saunders
When I reached the venerable age of 18, my mother handed me a Costco®-sized bottle of calcium and told me if I didn’t take them daily, I’d end up looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I shrugged off the advice; although I knew osteoporosis ran in my family, I also knew athleticism did not. I was the super athlete who had an incredibly healthy diet. I believed I was immune from all degenerative diseases, regardless of my family history. The funny thing was, we were both wrong. Osteoporosis can affect anyone. However, taking a pill isn’t the only way to keep it from affecting you. So what is osteoporosis, who is at risk for it, and what can we do to avoid it? Let’s have a look.
Osteoporosis is a loss of bone tissue and structure, which can lead to fracture. Your bones get so weak and porous that a simple fall, or even a sneeze, can cause a break. Any bone can be affected, but osteoporosis seems to cause more hip, spine, and wrist fractures than anything else. It is believed that 10 million people today have osteoporosis, many of whom are unaware they have it, as the disease shows no signs of existing before a break. Once the break occurs, not only is hospitalization fairly certain, but an average of 24 percent of hip-fracture patients over the age of 50 die in the year following their break.
Certain people are more likely to develop osteoporosis than others. Being a woman is the number one risk factor (just 20 percent of the people affected are men). Other risk factors include age, family history of the disease, being small and thin, low estrogen levels, smoking, heavy alcohol use, inactive lifestyle, overactive lifestyle, use of steroids and some anticonvulsants, certain diseases including anorexia and rheumatoid arthritis, and dietary concerns such as low calcium and vitamin D intake as well as excessive intake of protein, sodium, and caffeine.
To find out if you have osteoporosis, you will take bone mineral density tests (BMD) using a central DXA, which stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. These fancy X-rays can tell if a person has low bone density as well as the rate of deterioration. They can also predict the chances of fracture in the future. This can help the health care provider decide if treatment is necessary. Unfortunately, these tests are usually done after the age of 50, when the damage is already done. So how do we prevent getting there?
Ways to avoid osteoporosis:
- Start early. If you are under the age of 20 and are reading this, start taking care of your bones now. Eighty-five to ninety percent of all adult bone mass is acquired by the age of 20. Yes, 20. Unfortunately, many of us oldies were more concerned about how we looked in a bathing suit than about bone loss. So if you are young, start focusing on it now.
- Get your calcium and vitamin D. The appropriate intake of calcium, 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams a day, is extremely important. And if you think that Starbucks® latte has you covered, you are not quite hitting the mark. Eight ounces of milk only provides about 30 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA)*. Eight ounces of plain yogurt provides 42 percent of what you require, while 8 ounces of calcium-fortified orange juice gives you about 25 percent. The FDA has also stated that you can get your daily requirement of calcium through certain vegetables, but you will be eating A LOT of broccoli. The secret is to consume all of the above and consider a supplement like Beachbody’s Core Cal-Mag™. The body absorbs smaller quantities of calcium much more effectively, so splitting that 1,000 milligrams into two doses is your best bet. Also, intake of vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and for bone regrowth. Most people require between 5 and 10 micrograms daily and can easily attain this as many foods are fortified with vitamin D. But if you’re really worried, one teaspoon of cod liver oil will nail your recommended daily allowance, and it’s delicious to boot. Not!
- Exercise. Engaging in regular weight-bearing and muscle-building exercise is your next defense in avoiding fractures. Yes, all your hours of P90X can actually help your bones in addition to your abs. Studies over the last 10 years indicate both aerobic and resistance training have an effect on bone density, with resistance training being more beneficial. The National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests weight-bearing exercises be done for at least 30 minutes a day (these include dancing, running, jumping rope, stair climbing, etc.) and resistance training 2 to 3 times a week with the focus on 8 to 12 different exercises. If you are already doing INSANITY, P90X, or TurboFire, you’re working far beyond the requirements. If you haven’t quite begun your program, and you might be at risk for fracture, make sure you seek the advice of a health care professional before beginning.
- Avoid the bad stuff. Avoiding smoking, alcohol, and excessive amounts of protein might assist in preventing osteoporosis. Significant bone loss has been found in older men and women who smoke, and women smokers create less estrogen and experience menopause sooner. Smokers who suffer fractures take longer to heal. While there are studies showing the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, drinking as few as 2 to 3 standard drinks a day can interfere with the absorption of calcium and vitamin D. Excessive alcohol consumption also interrupts normal hormone function, which in turn reduces estrogen and testosterone levels, and increases the risk of osteoporosis. And consumption of excessive animal protein might actually affect bone density adversely, in the absence of calcium.† While the kidneys can handle high-protein diets in short bursts, getting more than 40 percent of your calories from animal protein can create a higher excretion of calcium in urine and fecal matter, but there are different schools of thought as to where the calcium is coming from. Keeping your protein consumption to a more moderate level, or increasing your calcium intake, might help your bones in the long run.
- Get tested. If you are over 50, it is definitely time to talk to your doctor. If you’re under 50, but have any of the risk factors stated above, a bone density test could save you years of pain and a vast amount of money. There is presently no cure for osteoporosis; there are only treatment options. There are several medications that help in prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Bisphosphonates, antiresorptive medications, and anabolic bone-forming medications have all been approved by the FDA and can certainly help in the war against fracture.
Osteoporosis isn’t necessarily a life-threatening disease, but it is something that will truly affect your quality of life if you are faced with it. Prevention can begin now, and a few alterations in lifestyle might be all that’s required. You can choose to ignore it at 20, but at 60 and 70, do you really want to be paying for your mistakes? Personally, I’d prefer to be scuba diving in Bora Bora, spending my children’s inheritance instead of hobbling around on a weak hip. So be dense in your bones, not your brains, and start thinking about it. Your skeleton will thank you someday.