Understanding Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones. Over time, bones can become brittle and porous and break easily, sometimes from only minor injury. Eight million American women and two million American men have osteoporosis. , and significant risk occurs despite age, gender and ethnic background.

Is osteoporosis more common today?

It would seem so. For one thing, we are living longer. Although all ages are at risk, aging is a factor in the development of the disease.

Our obsession with dieting, as well as poor dietary habits, contribute to our eliminating nutritious, calcium-rich foods to save on calories.

In this age of technology, we tend to be less active. These sedentary, inactive lifestyles contribute to bone porosity and brittleness, resulting in frail bones.

Risk Factors

Bone loss occurs without any significant symptoms. Symptoms may not be readily apparent until, quite dramatically, a bone breaks suddenly from a minor bump. Some of the risk factors include:

  • family history of the disease
  • post-menopausal women who have low estrogen levels
  • poor dietary habits
  • advanced age
  • low testosterone levels in men
  • sedentary, inactive lifestyles
  • excessive smoking and alcohol use
  • ethnic background
  • lack of sun exposure


A bone density test is a quick, simple, safe, and painless test for osteoporosis. This test can detect the disease before a fracture occurs, and allows for preventive measures to be taken. An annual visit to the doctor’s office can aid in early diagnosis.


Diet – Making our bones strong begins in early childhood and continues throughout adolescence until about the age of thirty. Maximizing this bone-building process early in life will help to postpone the onset of osteoporosis in people who are susceptible to it. Good nutrition, a balanced diet and adequate calories and nutrients are essential for bone growth at all ages. Calcium and vitamin D are vital for both prevention and treatment. Both minerals build and replenish bones. Calcium can be derived from milk products, fish, shellfish, oysters and from dark green vegetables such as broccoli, but not spinach – it contains oxalic acid and blocks absorption of calcium. It is crucial to determine how much calcium you get in your diet before you start any supplements, since many foods are fortified with calcium already. Vitamin D picks up the calcium circulating in your blood stream and brings it into the cells of the bone where it can be utilized to keep your bones healthy and strong. Most milk is now fortified with Vitamin D or you can get a therapeutic dose of it by spending fifteen minutes in the sunshine every day. Of course you will need to take into consideration that you should never be out in the sun without sunscreen, which would prevent your body from absorbing the Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Speak to your personal health care provider about this if it concerns you and be sure to discuss calcium requirements as well.

Physical activity – Keep active at all ages to strengthen your bones and keep your body flexible. Walking, stair climbing and weight lifting are good exercises to start with. Always check with your health care provider before starting any exercise program.


In addition to a healthy diet, physical activity and mineral supplements such as calcium and vitamin D, estrogen and other hormonal supplements may be prescribed for postmenopausal women. As women age, the hormone estrogen (and in men testosterone, to a lesser extent) diminishes in production. Estrogen is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Supplementing estrogen after menopause helps to delay the onset of osteoporosis, if you are susceptible to it. Non-hormonal drugs are also available and approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of the disease. You and your health care provider can decide what is best for you.

Further information on osteoporosis may be obtained from the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 1232 22nd St. NW, Washington, DC, by calling 202- 223-2226, or going to the Web site at https://www.nof.org/


National Institute of Health Consensus Statement Online. (2000, March 27-29). Osteoporosis, Prevention, Diagnosis, and Therapy, 17(1), 1-6.  National Institutes of Health. (2001, August). National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disease, National Resource Center, Fact sheets. Washington, DC: NIH.

Compiled by Stella Koslosky, MBA, RN, a free-lance writer for ADVANCE.

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