Osteoporosis is not an inevitability for every person as they get older. Age does lead to a loss in bone density that makes your bones less strong even though it is not as brittle as in osteoporosis. There are several reasons why bone loss occurs with age. A less active lifestyle, changes in diet and the effects of certain chronic diseases more commonly seen in the elderly are major contributing factors. However, age-related changes also play a significant role as well as genetic factors.
Bone loss may not be entirely avoidable but it can be slowed down and minimized with the correct knowledge and appropriate changes in diet and lifestyle. Nutritional supplements are equally effective. The key is preventing significant bone loss rather than trying to reverse it once it has occurred. If there is a substantial decline in bone density then you may have osteoporosis which needs to be treated with specific medication like bisphosphonates.
Start lifestyle changes by the 30s
Contrary to popular belief, the loss of bone does not occur in the later years of life. It starts as early as the mid 30s. Age-related bone loss is not a disease and occurs very gradually over years and decades. If you want to slow down bone loss then you need to start taking action by your 30s. Some of this bone loss is reversible but if you wait till much later, you cannot regain the lost bone. Simple measures like regular weight bearing exercises, eating calcium-rich foods and getting enough vitamin D through food and sunlight are just some of the ways to slow bone loss and should be started from the 30s. Apart from giving you healthier bones, these dietary and lifestyle changes have other health benefits.
Calcium necessary not only for bones
Calcium is an essential nutrient for building strong bones. Most of your bone is made up of calcium in different forms which gives your bones the shape, size, weight and strength it needs to function. But the bones are not the only organs that need calcium. It is an essential micro-nutrient that is used throughout the body like for muscle and nerve activity. When you have too little calcium in your body, calcium is then sourced from the bones which are the largest calcium reservoirs in the body. This means that the bones will be broken down slowly to free calcium for use elsewhere in the body. If you are not sure if you are getting enough calcium, take a low dose calcium supplement from early in life.
Eat more calcium-rich foods
The best source of calcium is from foods. Supplements are a convenient way of topping up but should not be the primary source of calcium for your body. Dairy is a great source of calcium but you can also get it from beans, nuts and leafy green vegetables. Calcium is also available in fairly good quantities in meat, poultry and seafood. By eating a balanced diet as indicated by the food pyramid, you will get sufficient calcium to meet your daily needs. Adults require approximately 1,000mg of calcium daily and there is sufficient quantities in food if you eat a balanced diet. If you are at high risk of osteoporosis then you should moderately increase your intake of these foods and use supplements.
Vitamin D is as important as calcium
Vitamin D is another essential nutrient for bone health. Your body needs it to absorb and utilize calcium. Without adequate vitamin D, a high calcium diet will not be of benefit for bone health. Many cereals and other foods are fortified with vitamin D, which can also be found dairy, fish, beef liver and eggs. But the main source of vitamin D is from sunlight. When sunlight strikes the skin, it helps with the conversion of vitamin D derivatives into more biologically active forms of vitamin D. Too little sunlight can lead to a vitamin D deficiency even if you are getting some vitamin D in your food.
Exercise essential for slowing bone loss
The loss of bone can be slowed down significantly with regular exercise. Weight bearing exercise is the best. The force of the body weight stimulates stronger bone development and reduces the loss of bone. Walking is ideal but running, jogging and sport where you have to stand up and move around a field or court is also effective. Other forms of exercise are not totally ineffective. Contraction of the muscles does place force on the bones but it will usually not match the force of body weight. The key is regular exercise – 30 minutes sessions at least 5 times in the week. Start off with shorter sessions and gradually build up. Always consult with your doctor before starting with any exercise program.
Do not wait for symptoms of bone loss
Many people think that they will take action once the loss of bone begins. The problem is that you will never know once bone loss starts. There is no definitive age despite it being known that it starts somewhere in the mid 30s. There are absolutely no symptoms to warn you that the bone loss has commenced. The loss of bone density can reach severe levels resulting in osteoporosis and you will still not know there is a problem. A minor fall can lead to a bone fracture or even a little bump against a hard object. Regular screening for bone density is therefore recommended especially if you are in the high risk group (postmenopausal women and all adults over 60 years of age).
Take HRT if necessary for menopause
Both men and women experience a decline in bone density with age but it is usually more severe in women than in men. The condition accelerates significantly during menopause as a result of lower estrogen levels. Although menopause is a normal physiological occurrence that all women will experience, it is not entirely without complications. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is sometimes seen in a negative light but can be extremely helpful in preventing postmenopausal complications like osteoporosis and heart disease. You should speak to your gynecologist about HRT, especially if your bone density scans show significant loss. HRT works along with dietary and lifestyle measures to prevent osteoporosis or at the very least minimize the severity.