Keeping Bones Strong: Preventing Osteoporosis

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I went for a bone density test—or DEXA scan—this week. I’m extremely unhappy to admit that I’ve lost an inch of height! Although I’m hoping it is due to some posture issues brought on by an illness I experienced a few years ago, to be on the safe side, my doctor order the scan to check for (and hopefully rule out!) osteoporosis, and its precursor, osteopenia.

The scan was easy, painless and only took about ten minutes. Now comes the hard part: waiting for results. To prepare myself for whatever those results may be, I decided to do some research.

Lucky you: I’m going to share what I learned!

What exactly is osteoporosis?

The word osteoporosis simply means “porous bone.” Because bone is living tissue, it is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis happens when the body loses more bone than it builds. When this occurs, bones—which look something like a honeycomb when viewed under a microscope—develop larger empty spaces. As these empty spaces enlarge, the bones become more susceptible to breaking.

Who is at risk of developing osteoporosis?

    • Those at highest risk are women over the age of 50. Men can also get osteoporosis, but women are 4 times as likely to get it.
    • Those with a family history of osteoporosis or its symptoms—such as a parent or grandparent who suffered a broken hip after a minor fall.
    • Petite, thin or small-boned women (and men) are at a higher risk because they have less bone mass to begin with, hence—they have less they can afford to lose.
    • Asian and white women are at higher risk than women of other ethnicities.
    • Those with insufficient intake of calcium and/or vitamin D.
    • Those with poor diets.
    • Those with certain diseases—such as rheumatoid arthritis.
    • Smokers
    • Those who drink alcohol to excess.
    • Those taking certain medications, including steroids and anticonvulsants.

What steps can be taken to prevent or reverse osteoporosis?

    • Get plenty of exercise: Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, running, yoga, climbing stairs, dancing and weight-lifting, increase bone density because they cause muscles to pull against bones, stimulating new bone growth.
    • Improve your diet: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; keep salt, refined sugar and starches to a minimum; avoid eating too much protein (2 to 4 ounces of lean protein, three times a day is enough for most people), and make sure to include a lot of calcium rich foods in your diet, such as dairy products, canned sardines, dark green vegetables, tofu and soy milk.
    • Take a calcium supplement—and make sure it is the right type and in the right amount: Calcium from plant or animal sources, such as calcium citrate and calcium hydroxyapatite, are generally considered to be the best because they are absorbed better than calcium sourced from rocks or shells. Only 500 mg should be taken at a time (that’s what our bodies are able to absorb). Ask your doctor how much you should be taking, given your health and your stage of life.
    • Cut back on fizzy drinks: Carbonated beverages, like soda, seltzers and even champagne leach calcium from bones. (A study conducted at Harvard University showed that teenaged girls who drank 2 or more cans of soda a day, experienced bone weakening which set them up for osteoporosis later in life.)
    • Cut back on alcohol: The magic number appears to be two drinks per day; more than that and you’re putting yourself at increased risk.
    • Cut back on caffeine: Every time you drink a cup of coffee, roughly 150 mg of calcium is leached from your bones. If you do drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages, consider upping your calcium supplement to offset the loss.
    • Quit smoking: Just one more good reason to bite the bullet and call it quits.
    • Make sure to get enough Vitamin D: This vitamin, which is actually a hormone, regulates the body’s absorption of calcium.

There are prescription drugs which are designed to halt the progression of osteoporosis, but their side-effects are daunting and the jury is still out on their long-term effectiveness. Though lifestyle and dietary changes require more effort and commitment than medication, they may yield more benefit in the long-run (to your bones and the rest of you!). If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis and your doctor suggests medication, please research the pros and cons for yourself and make your decision thoughtfully.

While I’m hoping my test results show that I don’t have bone weakening, I plan to keep these suggestions in mind. The most obvious one for me will be giving up flavored seltzers—I substituted these when I stopped drinking diet soda a few years ago, but it looks like it’s time to give these up as well. The other suggestion I need to take to heart is increasing my calcium supplement—and remembering to take it EVERY day.

And one more very important thing I’m telling myself: Don’t panic!

If my results aren’t what I’m hoping for, I’ll continue to research ways that other people have restored bone strength. I may not get my lost inch back, but I’ll do everything I can to prevent losing another. I’ll make today “Day One;” I’ll forgive myself for any mistakes that may have led to an unfavorable diagnosis and, armed with new wisdom, I’ll get started on a healthier tomorrow.


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