May is National Osteoporosis Month. Instead of focusing on the woes of osteoporosis, which are many, let's look at bone health across the life span. Why does bone health matter?
Bones protect our brain and organs, store minerals and allow our bodies to bend and move.
Bone is a living tissue, meaning it grows and builds and then breaks down. The process happens over and over again from birth until death.
Early in life, bone mass increases - bone is made more quickly than it breaks down. By about age 30, that trend slowly changes. Bone still grows, but there is slightly more loss than gain.
Ultimately, our bone health depends on how much we built during our first 30 years and how much we maintain after age 30. Stronger, denser bones are less susceptible to breaks and fractures. Weaker, porous bones increase the risk of fractures.
Osteoporosis is one of the chief causes of weak, brittle bones. Anyone can develop it, but it is more common in older women who have a family history of the disease. Caucasian and Asian women as well as those who use tobacco products and consume more than two alcoholic beverages daily have a higher risk of developing the disease.
What does a healthy bone look like? Under the microscope, bones look a bit like a honeycomb. Healthy bones are dense, with more solid structure than open space. Weaker, brittle bones have more open space and less solid structure.
Naturally, porous bones fracture more easily than dense bones. The most common fractures related to osteoporosis are in the spine, wrist and hips. They may result from normal daily activity or from a bump, slip or a hard fall.
What can be done to strengthen and maintain bones? As children, nutrition and physical activity are two important keys to building strong bones. As adults, the same principles help maintain the bone mass built during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Some of these bone-healthy activities include:
* Eating foods rich in calcium. Dairy isn't the only way to get calcium. Other sources include dark green leafy vegetables, calcium fortified foods and almonds.
* Getting enough vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in fortified foods and from minimal sun exposure.
* Participating in weight-bearing physical activities. These include anything that require muscles and bones to work against gravity. Walking, jogging, stair climbing, hula, hiking and weight lifting are good examples.
* Stop smoking.
* Limiting alcohol consumption.
What type of medications are available to prevent or build bone health? Before determining if medication is appropriate, a doctor will order a bone density scan to identify the strength and density of your bones. Depending on the results, a management plan may be outlined that is focused on lifestyle, medication or a combination of the two.
A variety of medications are available. Be sure to discuss all other medications and supplements you take regularly so the doctor can prescribe the best possible treatment plan.
There are a variety of resources that offer quality, non-biased, research-based information on bone health and osteoporosis. Consider visiting the following websites: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Institute on Health Senior Health; the Mayo Clinic; and the National Institute on Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center.
Bone health is a life-long quest. The earlier that quest begins, the greater the benefits. But it's never too late to begin.
* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Sunday of each month.