Senior Living: Warning signs for bone loss

Several of my friends have had falls recently where they have broken a bone. They were told they have osteoporosis but they were unaware of it until they broke a bone. What exactly is osteoporosis, and how do you know if you have it?

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones to the point where they break easily — most often bones in the hip, spine and wrist. Osteoporosis is called the “silent disease” because you may not notice any changes until a bone breaks. But your bones have been losing strength for many years.

Bone is living tissue. To keep bones strong, your body is always breaking down old bone and replacing it with new bone tissue. As people enter their 40s and 50s, more bone is broken down than is replaced. A close look at the inside of bone shows something like a honeycomb. When you have osteoporosis, the spaces in this honeycomb grow larger. And the bone that forms the honeycomb gets smaller. The outer shell of your bones also gets thinner. All of this loss makes your bones weaker.

Millions of Americans have osteoporosis. They are mostly women, but more than 2 million men also have this disease. White and Asian women are most likely to have osteoporosis. Other women at great risk include those who: have a family history of broken bones or osteoporosis; have broken a bone while an adult; had surgery to remove their ovaries before their periods stopped; had early menopause; have not gotten enough calcium throughout their lives; had extended bed rest; used certain medicines for a long time; or have a small body frame

The risk of osteoporosis grows as you get older. At the time of menopause, women may lose bone quickly for several years. After that, the loss slows down but continues. In men, the loss of bone mass is slower. But, by age 65 or 70, men and women are losing bone at the same rate.

Millions more Americans have osteopenia. Whether your doctor calls it osteopenia or just says you have low bone mass, consider it a warning. Bone loss has started, but you can still take action to keep your bones strong and maybe prevent osteoporosis later in life. That way you will be less likely to break a wrist, hip or vertebrae when you are older.

For some people, the first sign of osteoporosis is to realize they are getting shorter or to break a bone easily. Don’t wait until that happens to see if you have osteoporosis. You can have a bone density test to find out how solid your bones are. Your doctor may suggest a type of bone density test called a DXA test if you are age 65 or older or if he or she thinks you are at risk for osteoporosis.

The DXA test gives you important information to help you understand your risk for a fracture or broken bone. It could show that you have normal bone density. Or, it could show that you have low bone mass or even osteoporosis.

Next week I will discuss ways to prevent and treat osteoporosis.