Age-related bone loss is more common among women, but men may suffer from osteoporosis too.

Osteoporosis is a hot topic for many women and men as they age. Yet not everyone understands whether they’re likely to deal with the bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. Understanding the disease and your risk of getting osteoporosis is the first step in slowing bone loss and preventing deterioration due to osteoporosis.

What is Osteoporosis?

Simply put, osteoporosis means that the tissue in your bones has deteriorated, making them weak and brittle. A diagnosis of osteoporosis means you have at least 25 percent less bone mass than a healthy adult your age.

This occurs when more of your bone tissue is being taken away from your bones (a process called resorption) than is being created (formation). Bone formation usually peaks at age 30; after that, resorption happens slightly more quickly than formation, but has few ill effects in most people. However, in some people this process happens much more quickly than normal, either because they are losing bone more quickly or because they cannot make new bone fast enough, causing osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is one of the reasons that older men and women are at greater risk of fracturing their wrists, hips, or spine when they trip or fall. The broken bones that result can cause loss of mobility and may even lead to death.

Osteoporosis is more common in women than men — about 80 percent of people who have osteoporosis are women. Twelve million people in the United States are living with osteoporosis, while 34 million have low bone density (or osteopenia) that could progress to osteoporosis if not properly addressed.

Osteoporosis: Symptoms and Impact

Unfortunately, most people have no obvious symptoms of osteoporosis until the disease progresses to more advanced stages. For this reason, osteoporosis is often referred to as a “silent” disease. Perhaps when you think of osteoporosis you think of an older woman who seems to have shrunk over time. This physical change may be one of the most visible effects of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, by the time osteoporosis effects are visible, the condition has advanced dramatically.

If not treated, osteoporosis can result in:

  • Increased risk of fractures from bumps, falls, or strains that would not have caused a break in earlier years when the bones were stronger
  • Loss of height due to fractures in the vertebrae, which causes them to compress
  • Curving of the spine in a stooping posture called kyphosis
  • Severe back pain due to vertebral fractures or changes in posture
  • Loss of mobility or independence due to the impact of osteoporosis on the body

Osteoporosis: Who Is at Risk?

Osteoporosis risk increases if you:

  • Are female
  • Are older (true for both genders, but especially for women after menopause)
  • Had an early natural menopause or menopause caused by surgical removal of the ovaries in a premenopausal stage or certain medical treatments for conditions such as cancer
  • Have a petite, thin-boned body type
  • Are Caucasian or Asian
  • Have a parent with osteoporosis or fractures due to frailty
  • Had fractures or broken bones as an adult, especially if due to only minor trauma or after the age of 50
  • Have irregular menstrual periods or go for months without having a period
  • Have low estrogen or testosterone levels
  • Have anorexia nervosa
  • Eat a diet low in calcium and vitamin D
  • Have used certain medications, such as corticosteroids, over a long period
  • Lead an inactive lifestyle
  • Have smoked cigarettes for a long time
  • Drink alcohol excessively

Osteoporosis: Prognosis

The best way to address osteoporosis is to prevent bone loss. To do this, you can change some of your risk factors, especially lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption, and get bone mineral density scans when your doctor recommends them to find out how much, if any, bone loss you’ve experienced.

If you learn that you are at risk for osteoporosis and your bone mineral density scan indicates bone loss, you should talk to your doctor about medications that can slow the progression of osteoporosis and help strengthen and protect your bones. You should also make changes in your environment that will reduce the risk of slipping, tripping, or falling, since fractures due to osteoporosis cause the greatest loss of mobility and death.

Understanding osteoporosis will allow you and your doctor to plan a comprehensive approach to preventing or reducing bone loss so you can live healthfully and safely.