Osteoporosis is a common disease in Australia with 1.2 million people estimated to have osteoporosis and a further 6.3 million with low bone density. 1
If these statistics give you cause for concern then you will likely be inclined to ask what the early signs and risk factors of Osteoporosis and Osteopenia actually are.
Osteoporosis is often referred to as ‘The Silent Disease’ precisely because there are no obvious early signs. The medical term Osteopenia refers to a stage preceding osteoporosis involving the reduction of protein and mineral content within the bone (leaching). It is impossible to actually feel the bones losing density and becoming porous making them more fragile.
Unfortunately for some, the first sign of osteoporosis is a fractured bone – often termed a ‘fragility fracture’. A fragility fracture is usually associated with the type of stress or trauma that would not normally cause a fracture in a strong healthy bone.
Some bones appear to be more prone to leaching such as the spine, the neck of the femur (hip bone) and the wrist but this can vary greatly from one individual to another. There also appears to be a genetic predisposition to osteoporosis in some people. Anyone over 50 who experiences a broken bone from a minor bump or fall should be investigated for osteoporosis.
While there are no early signs of osteoporosis there are certain risk factors that predispose us to bone loss and it is important to be aware of these. Early intervention is the key to managing osteoporosis.
- For women – being peri and postmenopausal is a primary risk factor. Early menopause even more so. The drop in Oestrogen associated with menopause may result in up to 20% of bone loss as well as loss of muscle mass and changes in tendon and skin condition. Men tend to experience similar losses from age 65 when testosterone levels decline.
- Low body weight. Very lean men and women tend to be more at risk of osteoporosis.
- Those who were not so active as youngsters and those who spent a great deal of their active life swimming and cycling are more at risk of osteoporosis. Our maximum bone density peaks at around age 30-35. A very active healthy person at age 35 will generally have a higher bone density than a more sedentary individual and though they will still undergo a gradual decline – at any point after age 35, all things being equal, their bone density will be higher.
- Lifestyle habits such as prolonged smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increases leaching of bones. Poor diet and prolonged inadequate intake of calcium and vitamin D may also increase the risk of osteoporosis.
- Medical factors, for example, the prolonged use of medications such as steroids, certain antidepressants and medications for breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis to name a few.
- Prolonged inactivity and weightless activity is a big risk factor. Astronauts lose significant muscle mass and bone density when in space. This is also why prolonged swimming and cycling, while beneficial in many ways, can be considered detrimental for bone health.
Know your risk factors!
Discuss them with your health professional.
Be proactive in detection and management!
1. Osteoporosis Australia Medical & Scientific Advisory Committee. 2014. About Osteoporosis. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/about-osteoporosis. [Accessed 10 January 2017].