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Osteoporosis leads to weaker bones and increased fracture risk

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

Osteoporosis is a disease in which the internal structure of the bones deteriorates, leading to weakening and fractures. Often referred to as the “silent disease,” osteoporosis does not have any noticeable symptoms, and most people with osteoporosis are not even aware of what’s happening to them until their bones start to break.

While it may not seem like it, our bones are living tissue, growing or wearing down depending on a number of factors, including diet and exercise. The bone’s interior, called the trabecular bone, resembles a sponge and is wrapped by a denser outer layer called cortical bone. Literally meaning “porous bone,” osteoporosis causes the holes in the spongy inner bone to grow bigger, and more of them develop.

In addition to providing support and protecting internal organs, our bones store minerals, including calcium, for use in the body later. The body removes these minerals from the bones and replaces them as they are needed. Around the age of 30, the body stops replacing more bone than it uses, and after 35, the bones are broken down faster than they are rebuilt. Osteoporosis patients lose bone mass at an even greater rate.

It is estimated that 54 million Americans have osteoporosis, and while the disease can strike at any age, it is more common in older adults. Also, the risk of women developing the disease is four times greater than it is in men. Women begin losing bone density more quickly at the time of menopause. That loss slows but continues after menopause, and by 65 to 70 years old, the rate of loss in men and women is equal.

One in two women 50 or older will experience a fracture resulting from osteoporosis, as will one in four men. These fractures most often occur in the hips, spine or wrists, and they are often the result of a fall. However, in some osteoporosis cases, the bones can become so weak that they are fractured just by bumping into something, or even coughing.

Although the exact causes of osteoporosis remain a mystery, older adults can take steps to strengthen their bones and decrease their risk of developing the disease, including talking to their doctor about any medications they are taking that might weaken bones. Some steroids and medications used to treat certain cancers or seizures can cause side effects that lead to a loss in bone density.

An active lifestyle, including weight-bearing exercises and aerobic activities such as walking and dancing, helps to strengthen bones in much the same way it works to strengthen muscles. A healthy diet that includes enough calcium and vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, also keeps bones healthy and strong. Several medications can also be prescribed to treat the disease.

Tobacco use and having two or more alcoholic drinks a day lead to a greater risk of developing osteoporosis.

While osteoporosis has no symptoms, there are some common changes in the body that can indicate the disease may be present. These include fractures that happen more often or easily, stooping or difficulty standing upright, losing more than an inch in height, and difficulty breathing caused by disk compression. A bone mineral density test (BMD) may be ordered if any of these signs appear.

A family history of osteoporosis may put a person at higher risk for developing the disease, as can some other medical conditions such as thyroid problems, certain bowel disorders and diseases of the blood. These may indicate the need for a bone density test. A BMD should be ordered for all women 65 and older, as well as for all men over 70.

— Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings.

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