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What is osteoporosis? 

For as rigid as they feel, the bones that comprise the human skeleton are in a constant state of being broken down and replaced by new bone cells. This process happens throughout life and isn’t something we normally think about. However, when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the breakdown of old bone, osteoporosis occurs. 

Osteoporosis is common and affects millions of people, world-wide. It is characterized by a loss of bone density, making people weak and more prone to injury. This bone disease can make bones so brittle that even a cough, bump or tumble can cause severe breakage. 

Osteoporosis Risk Factors

Osteoporosis can affect anyone, regardless of sex, age, race and location. However, certain population groups are adversely affected and inherently have a greater risk of developing the bone disorder. 

  • Sex. Women are at a greater risk of osteoporosis than men. According to the Cleveland Clinic, women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. Additionally, after age 50, one in two women will experience an osteoporosis related fracture in their lifetime. This is due in large part to the hormone changes that happen during menopause. 
  • Race. Data collected that tracks injuries related to osteoporosis shows that people of Northern European or Asian descent are more likely to develop the bone disease.  
  • Age. Up until about age 30 – 35, we build and lose bone density at normal, equal rates. Around this time in life, we reach peak bone mass and our bones will no longer be able to create new bone tissue as quickly as it is lost. If someone of average health reaches age 80, they will naturally have less bone mass than someone of average health at 50 years of age. 
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis. Studies show that individuals with RA have a higher risk of hip fractures related to osteoporosis. 
  • Family history. If relatives and ancestors have experienced injury due to osteoporosis, you are more likely to develop osteoporosis later in life as well. 
  • Size. Some evidence to suggest that smaller framed individuals may be at a greater risk because they have less bone mass to draw from. 
  • Previous or current medical conditions. Thyroid issues, hormone treatment, Celiac disease, IBS or blood diseases may inhibit healthy bone turnover, causing osteoporosis. 
  • Diet. A diet lacking calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients may cause bones to start breaking down more quickly. Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, can contribute to a lack of calcium intake, low body weight, and low bone mass. 
  • Tobacco use.  Various studies were conducted to measure bone mineral density (BMD) between male and female cigarette smokers and non-smokers of varying ages. Some studies showed that those who smoked exhibited smaller instances of bone density. Additionally, cigarette smoking is bad on many fronts but can increase the risk of fractures, poor circulation and fills the body with toxins.
  • Alcohol use. Similarly, alcohol consumption affects all processes within the body, including digestion, heart rate and sleep. Studies show that having two or more drinks a day increases the likelihood of osteoporosis.  
  • Lifestyle Factors. A lack of movement in the day to day or regimented exercise  multiple times a week can cause bones, muscles and joints to weaken, speeding up the process of bone loss and making it more difficult to bounce back from injury, like a hip fracture, later in life. 

Causes and Symptoms of Osteoporosis 

Researchers are still trying to figure out why osteoporosis occurs, although they know a lot about how it develops. Picture the inside of your bones as sponges. The area containing this porous tissue is allied trabecular bone. Wrapped around the trabecular bone is a denser layer called the cortical bone. 

As osteoporosis progresses, the holes in the sponge-like trabecular bone increase in size and number, weakening this inner layer. Since bones store calcium, they can break themselves down to use calcium stored within to create new bone. Scientists and doctors have a firm grasp on the progression and treatment of osteoporosis, however, they are still searching for the root cause of why some people get osteoporosis and others don’t.  

The symptoms can look like signs of aging or can be more dramatic and severe, depending on the severity of osteoporosis. It’s often called a silent disease because the individual and his or her doctor may not know they have it until a fracture or sprain occurs. The symptoms are: 

  • Poor posture
  • Decreasing in height
  • Lower back pain
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • “Widow’s hump” – a hunching of the back and shoulders

Osteoporosis Prevention. 

For a majority of women and men with increased risk factors, doctors should help create osteoporosis prevention plans, as this is one of the more effective ways to mitigate risk and bolster bone health. This plan may incorporate any or all of the following practices: 

  • Starting a vitamin and calcium supplement regimen early, especially for women, can help. Taking calcium and vitamin D to supplement regular intake slows the breakdown of bone and bone density loss. For men, as testosterone levels begin to dip, they may consider talking to a doctor to create a plan for minimizing the risk of osteoporotic fractures.
  • Hormone replacement therapy for women going through menopause. Menopause causes estrogen levels to decline. Taking estrogen or using an estrogen patch, under the supervision of a doctor, can help stave off large amounts of bone density loss, making it easier for women to transition through menopause. 
  • Exercise that includes weight-bearing exercises or strength training is key. Cardio-focused workouts are fantastic in improving circulation, losing weight and bolstering heart health.  However, strength training is really a must to build bone strength. Weight lifting, Pilates and Yoga can build muscle and bone strength while providing low-impact exercise options for those who are prone to injury or who already have early signs of osteoporosis. 
  • Maintain an active lifestyle. Choosing to walk, take the stairs or even carrying your own groceries can help keep the body active and mobile through life. 
  • Diet. Maintaining a consistent diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins is one of the best ways to ensure your body is getting adequate nutrients. Work with a nutritionist or functional medicine doctor to create a diet that works with your body’s needs. 

Work to Prevent Osteoporosis and Age Gracefully.

Aging is a natural part of life and happens to everyone, but there are ways to age gracefully and healthfully. Osteoporosis can severely limit one’s ability to live independently, as they age. Staying fit and strong for as long as possible is one of the best ways to ensure independence and a higher quality of life. 

UCF Health’s patient portal offers tips for healthy living, COVID-19 updates for patients and can connect patients with healthcare professionals nearby. A great way to develop a health plan involves regular check-ups with an internal medicine doctor or primary care professional. Don’t wait, make an appointment easily using our online scheduling portal.