What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis means a critical loss of bone material.

Like skin cells that die off and grow anew each day, bones are also living tissues that continuously deteriorate and regenerate by the body. Throughout childhood and adolescence, our bodies produce more bone tissue than we lose, but this often changes as we age.

One measure of bone health is called bone mass; it gauges the density of your bones compared to someone of the same age and gender who is in good health. After we have reached our peak bone mass, the bone mass density should stay the same or slowly decline if the balance between regeneration and deterioration is impaired.

If you were to look at a slice of your bone under a microscope, you would quickly be able to identify the structure as resembling a honeycomb. The poles of the honeycomb-like bone structure become thin and fragile when the body cannot produce as much bone tissue as it loses. This puts us at risk of “fragility fractures” – fractures caused by low impact events such as a simple fall. Most commonly, wrists, hips and the spine become injured during these events. Loss of bone density also results in loss of height.

As we age, our lifestyle choices begin to take a toll on our bodies; we lose bone mass, and gradually the strength and density of our bones decrease.

Poor nutritional choices, repeated dieting for weight loss as well as eating disorders all increase the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. Similarly, a sedentary routine often contributes to the development of osteoporosis – hence the importance of exercise. Although osteoporosis is more common in women after menopause and in elderly men, it can start at a younger age too.

Some medical conditions such as type 1 diabetes, asthma, celiac disease and any chronic inflammatory disorder make a person more susceptible to osteoporosis. Special attention must also be given to the use of steroids as they slow down bone regeneration.

To calculate you fracture risk use this tool recommended by WHO2: http://www.shef.ac.uk/FRAX/

(Please consult your GP if you have any health concerns, especially if your fracture risk calculation is medium or high.)

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So what can we do?

The good news is we can take lifestyle measures at any age to prevent osteoporosis and slow down bone loss.

Preventive measures:

DIET & DRUGS

  • Avoid smoking
  • No or little alcohol: Limit alcohol intake to 14 units/week for women and 21 units/week for men (one unit of alcohol is equivalent to half a pint of lager or half a glass of wine)
  • Correct any deficiency of calcium, vitamin D and protein in your diet
  1. If you are over 50, you need 1g calcium/day and 800 units of vitamin D/day as well as 1g/kg body weight/day of protein.
  2. CALCIUM: eat greens such as kale, spinach, watercress and okra
  3. VITAMIN D: get some sun
  4. PROTEIN: snack on raw, unsalted mixed nuts

To see whether you are taking enough calcium in your diet, click here: http://www.sign.ac.uk/guidelines/fulltext/71/annex4.html

REGULAR EXERCISE to prevent osteoporosis:
1. Weight bearing* and resistance exercises

These exercises stimulate bone-making cells and strengthens bones.

Types of exercise:

  • brisk walking, eg walking faster than your usual pace
  • aerobic exercise
  • running
  • weight training to strengthen muscles that support your bones as well as to increase tone and improve balance

2. Balance, posture and functional exercises will help you reduce the risk of falling and breaking a bone.

It is important to emphasize that you need to exercise regularly in order to reap any benefits. Remember, short recurring workout sessions are better than a long one-off workout.

* Weight bearing exercise is any exercise where you are supporting your own body weight. Cycling and swimming are not weight-bearing!

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment of osteoporosis. Please consult your GP if you have any health concerns, especially if your fracture risk calculation is medium or high.