What Women Need to Know about Bone Density and Osteoporosis

Women are capable of amazing things, from giving birth to helping put men on the moon and everything in between. Many women act as the backbones for their family and community, and while it may take a lot for the resilience of a woman to break, the same is unfortunately not true for their actual bones.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, about eight million, or 80 percent, are women. Additionally, a woman’s risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. In serious cases, even just sneezing could cause a fracture. That’s why getting to know your bone density and issues that can impact it are so important.

 

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis literally translates to “porous bone,” and it’s a disease in which bone density and quality are reduced. As bones become more porous, they also become much more fragile, greatly increasing the risk of fracture. There are multiple reasons why women are more likely to get osteoporosis than men. For starters, women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than their male counterparts. The hormone estrogen also plays a major role, as it helps protect bones. When women reach menopause, their estrogen levels drastically drop, which can cause bone loss.

The most commonly affected bones are the hip, spine and wrist. In 2017, more than 6.5 percent of the Medicare beneficiaries in North Texas reported being treated for osteoporosis, with Wise county reporting the highest incidence of treatment, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

 

What’s Your Risk?

Osteoporosis and bone health issues vary for girls and women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. Caucasian women and older women are most at risk for osteoporosis; however, osteoporosis and low bone density are common among other groups as well. The NOF highlights the following risk factors based on your ethnicity:

Caucasian Women

  • Twenty percent of Caucasian women age 50 and older are estimated to have osteoporosis.
  • More than half of all Caucasian women age 50 and older are estimated to have low bone mass, which means their bones are getting weaker but they don’t yet have osteoporosis.
  • Between the ages of 20 and 80, Caucasian women lose one-third of the bone mineral density in their hip.
  • About 15 percent of Caucasians are lactose intolerant, which can make it difficult to get enough calcium needed for strong bones.

African American Women

  • Five percent of African American women older than 50 are estimated to have osteoporosis.
  • Another 35 percent are estimated to have low bone mass.
  • About 70 percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant.
  • Many African American women don’t get enough vitamin D, which can make it hard for the body to absorb calcium.

Asian-American Women

  • About 20 percent of Asian American women age 50 and older are estimated to have osteoporosis.
  • More than half of all Asian American women age 50 and older are estimated to have low bone density.
  • About 90 percent of Asian American adults are lactose intolerant.

Latina Women

  • Ten percent of Latinas have osteoporosis.
  • Half of all Latinas older than 50 have low bone mass.
  • Many Latinas are lactose intolerant.
  • Hip fractures among Latinas in the United States appear to be on the rise.

While women are impacted far more, men can develop osteoporosis as well.

 

What Can I Do?

Though there is no cure for osteoporosis, healthy lifestyle choices such as a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, exercise and certain medications can help prevent further bone loss and reduce the risk of fractures. Quitting smoking can also greatly reduce your risk. Additional healthy habits include:

  • Limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Getting at least 30 minutes a day of weight-bearing physical activity. Jogging, walking and hiking are great activities to strengthen your bones. Dancing, yoga and tai chi can also build up your density levels while improving your balance.
  • Getting outdoors! Sunshine helps your body process vitamin D, which is essential to calcium absorption, but remember to always use sunscreen.
  • Get your vitamin D and calcium levels checked by your health care provider if you are over the age of 50 or post menopause.

There are two major factors that affect your chance of getting osteoporosis: the amount of bone you have when you reach menopause and how fast you lose bone after you reach menopause.

The greater your bone density is to begin with, the lower your chance of developing osteoporosis. If you had low peak bone mass or other risk factors that caused you to lose bone, your chance of getting osteoporosis is greater. For some women, bone loss happens faster than others. In fact, a woman can lose up to 20 percent of her bone density during the five to seven years following menopause. If you lose bone quickly, you have a greater chance of developing osteoporosis.

One way to identify your bone health is by doing a bone density test, sometimes called a bone mineral density (BMD) test or bone mass measurement. It is routinely recommended for postmenopausal women 50 and older.

The test can identify osteoporosis, determine your risk for fractures and measure your response to osteoporosis treatment. The most commonly used BMD test is called a central DXA test, a painless test that is a bit like having an X-ray performed.

One or two years after an initial bone density test, a second bone density may be done and will determine if you have low peak bone mass that is staying the same or if you are losing bone. If your bone density drops significantly between the first and second test, you may be losing bone and further evaluation by a healthcare provider is needed. Your physician will go over your test results with you but if you’d like to learn more about the scores associated with the test, the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center has a comprehensive guide online.

Postmenopausal women will also frequently opt for estrogen therapy (ET) or estrogen with progesterone hormone therapy (HT) to relieve symptoms associated with menopause. These therapies can also prevent bone loss, because the decline in estrogen is a contributing factor to bone loss. There are possible risks involved with these therapies, though, such as an increased risk of heart attacks and blood clots, so it’s important to discuss risks and benefits with your health care provider.

 

The Takeaway

People used to accept osteoporosis as an inevitable part of aging, but today we know a lot more about how to prevent, detect and treat the disease. You are never too young or old to take care of your bones; in fact, starting early and establishing good lifestyle habits can help you protect your bones and decrease your chance of getting osteoporosis as you age. If your health care provider hasn’t talked to you about your bone health, it’s time for you to bring it up!

Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/Provider today.

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