What is osteoporosis? Osteoporosis, also known as bone loss, is a disease that increases the risk of bone fractures. Parts of the body where osteoporosis often occur are the lumbar spine, the neck of the femur and the radius in the wrist. Did you know that the skeleton makes up about 20 per cent of your body weight? Your skeletal system is ultimately responsible, together with your muscles, for carrying your entire body weight from A to B in an upright posture – all day long.
In Ireland, osteoporosis affects around 300,000 people over the age of 50. Unfortunately, as is often wrongly assumed, this health issue is not purely a symptom of old age. People with osteoporosis suffer from bone fractures more easily, even during everyday movements such as standing or walking. These fractures can be accompanied by long-lasting consequences such as chronic and acute pain, which severely limit the quality of life of those affected.
We’re here to give you tips on how osteoporosis can be prevented as well as to explain different osteoporosis symptoms, forms of osteoporosis treatment and what causes osteoporosis in the first place.
What is osteoporosis?
The term is derived from the Latin words ‘osteo’, meaning ‘bone’, and ‘poros’, meaning ‘hole’. With osteoporosis, bones become porous, they provide less support, and break more easily – but why?
Bones are not just stiff and rigid structures, but are living tissue made up of hard and elastic parts. Inside the bone, bone formation and degradation take place continuously. With osteoporosis, the balance of building up and breaking down bone is thrown out of kilter, reducing bone mass and increasing the risk of bone fractures.
Osteoporosis is also divided into primary and secondary osteoporosis:
- Primary osteoporosis: The majority of people affected have this form of the disease, where no specific cause is found. There are known factors that increase the risk of osteoporosis (for example, age), but they are not necessarily the triggers for the disease. There is also a distinction between type 1, postmenopausal osteoporosis and type 2 senile osteoporosis.
- In secondary osteoporosis, bone loss is caused by another disease. These include, for example, diabetes and hyperthyroidism. Certain medications, such as glucocorticoids, can also increase the likelihood of osteoporosis. However, only about five percent of patients are affected by this form of osteoporosis.
Which common osteoporosis symptoms should I look out for?
Since initial microfractures (small cracks, fractures) usually occur inside the bone, many people affected do not notice possible osteoporosis symptoms for a long time. These fractures mean that the overall stability of your bones decreases, and thus the risk of a fracture increases.[4, 5]
One of the first osteoporosis symptoms is a broken bone or someone who looks like they are constantly bent forward. This happens when the bones of your spine have broken and you can no longer support your body weight.
Did you know that one of the most common osteoporosis symptoms is the widow’s hump? This is where the spine is strongly curved, either because the individual vertebral bodies have slumped together or because compression fractures – that is, fractures caused by the effect of pressure, have occurred.
What are the main osteoporosis causes?
Osteoporosis develops gradually and discreetly. This is why many sufferers only notice it when the first serious bone fracture occurs. It can take up to ten years for this fracture to occur – in less than 25 per cent of those affected, bone loss is discovered and treated in time.
One of the most common osteoporosis causes is ageing. Bone mass reduces with age; this is quite normal. On average, the rate at which boss mass is lost is about 0.5 to one per cent per year. In people with osteoporosis, however, this value is significantly higher – in some cases, up to six per cent of the bone mass is lost.
Other typical osteoporosis causes include:
- taking steroid medication or anti-oestrogen tablets for an extended period of time
- inflammatory conditions, hormone-related health issues or malabsorption problems
- a family history of osteoporosis
- history of an eating disorder
- having a low body mass index (BMI)
- not exercising regularly
- heavy drinking and smoking
Osteoporosis causes: are osteoporosis and menopause linked?
The sex hormone oestrogen, the function of which is – among others – to protect bone health in women, decreases significantly when women reach menopause. This decline in oestrogen can cause bone loss. This is why the chance of developing osteoporosis grows when women reach menopausal age – for some women, the rate of bone loss can be quick and severe.
Hormone therapy is an option for women to help them control and relieve their menopausal symptoms – and some of these therapies can help treat bone loss. These therapies should be discussed in advance with a doctor or physician. To read more about this sex hormone and how important it is for our health, visit our Health Portal article on oestrogen deficiency and menopause.
Did you know that some women experience bone loss quicker than others? A woman’s bone density can decrease by up to 20 per cent in the five to seven years following menopause.
How is osteoporosis diagnosed?
When it comes to osteoporosis, a distinction is also made between the preliminary stage of osteoporosis and severe osteoporosis, which is already recognisable through bone fractures. The decisive parameter here is bone structure, measurable among other things by bone density, which is measured with the T-value, a unit indicating the bone density of a person. Normal, healthy bones (the values of healthy 30-year-olds are used as an example here) have a T-value of more than –1. Further classification includes the following:
- Osteopenia (T-value –1 to –2.5): preliminary stage of osteoporosis
- Preclinical osteoporosis (T-value < –2.5): no fractures are present yet
- Manifest osteoporosis (T-value < –2.5): first vertebral fractures with no apparent cause (for example, due to everyday movements)
- Severe manifest osteoporosis (T-value < –2.5): bone fractures, also outside of the spine, often in the femoral neck or forearm
Manifest osteoporosis in particular can mean severe limitations for sufferers. Those affected often suffer from pain and may have to undergo operations or long rehabilitative treatments.
How can osteoporosis be prevented?
Risk factors for osteoporosis include age and gender. About 30 per cent of all women and 20 per cent of all men develop bone loss over the course of their lives.
The good news is that there are also factors that you can influence yourself. The following circumstances are also considered common osteoporosis causes:
- Not enough exercise
- Nutrient deficiency (for example, calcium or vitamin D)
- Oestrogen deficiency
- To much caffeine, alcohol or nicotine
You can also ensure that you receive an optimal supply of calcium and vitamin D and strengthen your muscles and bones with sufficient exercise.
Preventing bone loss: what is the best vitamin for bones?
Vitamin D helps absorb calcium in the blood and incorporate it into bones. These processes are enormously important for your bone stability.
Vitamin D is produced by our skin when it is exposed to the sun’s rays. Across the globe, however, many people are deficient in this vitamin, especially in the dark winter months. This is why it is important to ensure that your vitamin D levels are optimal – especially if you spend a great deal of time indoors. Whether you take a daily walk or some vitamin D supplements to reach ideal levels, your bones will thank you in the long run!
Gain more insights into vitamin D deficiency symptoms, the function of vitamin D in our bodies, risk groups, and how to prevent a deficiency in our dedicated Health Portal article on vitamin D deficiency. If you suspect that you may suffer from vitamin D deficiency, the easiest plan of action is to take a vitamin D test to rule out or confirm a deficiency.
Vitamins for bones: does calcium help with osteoporosis?
About 99 per cent of our body’s total calcium is found in our bones, where it provides stability. However, some calcium also circulates in our bloodstream. If there is a calcium deficiency in our blood, the missing mineral is drawn from the bones and used for metabolic processes. This affects the stability and hardness of our bones. Therefore, it is important to eat consciously and make sure your calcium levels are sufficient.
Professionals advise adults to consume 700 milligrams to 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily. You can meet this requirement through a balanced diet or through calcium supplements. Spinach and broccoli in particular are rich in this mineral, but cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese also contain calcium.
Did you know that mineral water is a good source of calcium? By drinking mineral water, you not only supply your body with this important mineral, but also keep yourself hydrated at the same time.[10, 11] However, not all mineral water is the same – for example, calcium-rich mineral water is labelled as such if it contains more than 150 milligrammes per litre.
Other nutrients are also important for promoting strong bones. These compounds and vitamins for bones include, for example:
- Magnesium, zinc, and copper
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B6 and B12
- Folic acid
- Amino acids
If you have a confirmed nutrient deficiency, you should consider taking certain supplements for a period of time until your nutrient levels are optimal again.
How does exercise affect osteoporosis?
Too little exercise is not good for our bodies and, among many other things, also affects bone strength. Exercise affects the body’s ability to process calcium: exercise stimulates our entire metabolism, and also specifically bone metabolism. As a result, calcium is better deposited in your bones, which improves your bone hardness and stability.[14, 15]
The important thing here is that when you choose to exercise, you make sure that pressure and force are applied to your bones. It is only through this application of force that metabolism is stimulated. Sports that are easy on the joints, such as swimming, do not promote calcium storage in our bones. Strength training, especially with weights, is very good. Jogging or Nordic walking, light gymnastics, training with your own body weight or even cycling can also be great for your bone health.
Osteoporosis treatment: what can I do?
Studies found that about 40,000 fractures could be avoided if osteoporosis sufferers received more comprehensive treatment and medication. In any case, you should seek medical treatment – which then has many components.
Regular exercise and strength training are not only preventive measures, they are also key in osteoporosis treatment. If you have an increased risk of bone fractures due to bone loss, you should also reduce the risk of injury and other accidents in everyday life.
Diet and Osteoporosis: Are There Superfoods for Osteoporosis?
A superfood is a food that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fibre or fatty acids) that have positive effects on our health. People who are at risk of developing osteoporosis or who have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis should make sure that they maintain a healthy diet – especially with superfoods rich in vitamin D and calcium.
Great superfoods for osteoporosis prevention include the following:
- kale, okra, Chinese cabbage and broccoli
- canned sardines and salmon
- fatty varieties such as mackerel and tuna
- red peppers, green peppers, oranges, grapefruits, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, papaya and pineapples
- vitamin- and calcium-fortified foods, such as juices, breakfast foods, soy milk, rice milk, cereals, snacks and breads
Besides this, it is recommended that alcohol and tobacco consumption should be avoided or at least reduced.
Which medications help treat osteoporosis?
These medications, along with exercise and diet, are often used as forms of osteoporosis treatment:
- SERM: Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) are especially for affected postmenopausal women. Due to a lack of estrogen produced after menopause, bone mass decreases. SERMs mimic the effect of the sex hormone estrogen and thus counteract the loss.
- Bisphosphonates: Bisphosphonates slow down the existing degradation processes of the bones.
- Calcium and vitamin D: Calcium in particular is easy to include in your diet. However, since vitamin D and calcium are essential for bone metabolism both together and separately, you can also take appropriate supplements after consulting your doctor.
- Parathormone: This medication promotes the activity of osteoblasts – that is, the cells that are involved in the remodelling processes and the development of bone tissue.
What is osteoporosis and how do you prevent it – at a glance
What are bones?
There are about 206 bones in your body that enable movement and posture. Bones also perform a number of other important tasks – for example, they protect your internal organs, are responsible for blood formation and store many minerals and nutrients.
What is osteoporosis?
When it comes to osteoporosis, bone mass decreases and the bones become more porous. The disease is therefore also called bone loss.
People with osteoporosis have a higher risk of bone fractures. The lumbar spine, the neck of the femur and the radius of the wrist are particularly at risk.
The risk of osteoporosis increases with age, and women are affected more often than men.
What are common osteoporosis symptoms?
One of the first signs of osteoporosis is a broken bone or someone with a bent-forward posture. This happens when the bones of your spine have broken and you can no longer support your body weight.
How can osteoporosis be prevented?
A lot of exercise, especially strength training, stimulates the metabolic processes in the bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. You should also ensure you receive enough important vitamins for bones and nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D.
Reducing your consumption of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol and, as a woman, keeping an eye on your oestrogen levels (especially during and after menopause) could help you prevent osteoporosis from becoming an issue.
What kind of osteoporosis treatment exists?
Osteoporosis treatment occurs through targeted strength training and exercise therapy.
At the same time, depending on the severity of the disease, you can improve your bone strength with medication or vitamins for bones (for example, vitamin D).
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