Experts believe that osteoporosis is a largely preventable disease. But prevention must be started early. Receiving enough calcium as a child and teenager can dramatically cut your risks of developing osteoporosis later in life. As an adult, eating a good diet, getting enough calcium and vitamin D, exercising, and avoiding lifestyle habits such as smoking and excessive drinking, can help prevent osteoporosis. To learn about osteoporosis prevention techniques you should talk to your doctor.
The amount of calcium you need depends on your age. Adolescents need 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day. Adults need 1,000 milligrams up to age 50 and 1,200 milligrams after age 50.
The best way to figure out if you're getting enough calcium is to add up the amount of calcium in the foods you eat. Check the labels. For example, an 8-ounce glass of milk has nearly 300 milligrams of calcium, an 8-ounce cup of yogurt has between 250 and 400 milligrams of calcium, and 1.5 ounces of cheddar cheese has about 300 milligrams of calcium. Then compare what you're getting against the recommended amounts of calcium for your age group.
If you are not reaching the recommended minimums, talk to your doctor about ways you can boost your calcium levels, like changing your diet or taking supplements. But don't assume that more calcium is always better. Some studies have shown that women who take a lot of calcium supplements are at higher risk of developing kidney stones. The recommendation for the highest tolerable intake of daily calcium is 2,500 milligrams of calcium a day. More than this amount may increase your risk of kidney stones and other problems.
Dairy products have high levels of calcium per serving, which is why they're often recommended for bone health. But calcium from other sources -- like spinach, bok choy, and mustard greens, beans, tofu, almonds, fish, and many fortified cereals and juices -- can be just as if not more beneficial. However, it may be difficult to get adequate calcium from food if you don’t eat dairy. And osteoporosis experts do say the best source of calcium is from foods, not supplements. Food contains other important nutrients that help the body use calcium.
Osteoporosis in children is rare. It's usually the result of a chronic health condition such as asthma or cystic fibrosis that is treated with corticosteroid medications. Sometimes, children will develop osteoporosis with no clear cause. It's called idiopathic juvenile osteoporosis, and the good news is that it usually goes away on its own within two to four years.
Of course calcium -- the most important nutrient for strong bones -- is important for all children whether they have osteoporosis or not. Even if children are healthy now, low levels of calcium in their diets can greatly increase their risk of osteoporosis later in life. So keep track of how much calcium your children get from food – the first and best option. If they aren't getting enough, supplements may be an option. But never give your child a supplement without talking to your doctor first.
Your genes can play a big role in your risk of developing osteoporosis. For instance, studies show that if your parents had a history of bone fractures, you're more likely to have weaker bones and a higher risk of fractures yourself.
Your risk of getting osteoporosis is also higher if other family members, like aunts or siblings, had it too. A genetic risk for osteoporosis can be inherited from either your mother or father's side.
If osteoporosis does run in your family, talk to your doctor. You need to take extra steps to prevent it.
Although the drop in estrogen levels during menopause can result in dramatically worsening osteoporosis, it isn't the sole cause of the disease. Many other factors -- like your genes, some diseases and treatments, eating disorders, and deficiencies of calcium and vitamin D -- can play an important role. Remember that men can get osteoporosis too, even though they don't go through menopause.
A bone mineral density test is the typical way of diagnosing osteoporosis and predicting your risk of fractures. It's a kind of X-ray that reveals the hardness of your bones. The most common type is called a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA or sometimes called DXA.) Usually, the scans look at the weight-bearing ability of your hip and spine, then uses this information to estimate your risk of fractures.
After the test, your doctor will work out your "T-score." This indicates how dense your bones are compared to those of younger, healthy women. Usually, a T-score defines your score as being above or below the norm.
A normal bone density is a T-score of plus one (+1) to a score of a minus one (-1). A low bone mass (osteopenia) is a bone density T-score of -1 to -2.5. Osteoporosis is defined as a bone density score of -2.5 or below.
Unfortunately, medicines for osteoporosis -- like any drugs -- can cause side effects. Before you start taking any medicine, your doctor should go over any side effects that may be a cause for concern. If you find that the side effects are unpleasant, go back to your doctor. He or she may be able to help by changing your dosage or switching medications.
Getting the right osteoporosis medication depends on a lot of things: your health, your age, how advanced your osteoporosis is -- even your gender. So the medicine that's right for your sister or neighbor may not be right for you.
Also, when trying any medication, there's always a bit of trial and error. Unfortunately, your doctor can't always know which medicine will work best for you beforehand. Although it may be frustrating, you might need to try several different medicines until you find the right one.
Although a number of supplements are marketed as bone strengtheners, there's very little evidence that they help.
Until more research is done, play it safe. To strengthen your bones, most experts recommend that you stick with the basics: calcium, vitamin D, appropriate exercise, and a good diet. Also, avoid habits that can weaken bones, such as smoking and excess alcohol.
Most treatments for osteoporosis -- like bisphosphonates and SERMS -- work by slowing down the process of bone loss. Since your body is always naturally remodeling bone, slowing down the rate of bone loss may allow it to make new bone faster than you lose it. So in a sense, these treatments can reverse the damage. They allow your bones to become denser and stronger, although your body is doing all the repair work.