Approximately 3 million people in the UK are thought to have osteoporosis, and there are over 250,000 fractures every year as a result. Although commonly associated with post-menopausal women, osteoporosis can also affect men, younger women and children.
Osteoporosis is a condition that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and more likely to break. These fractures most commonly occur in the spine, wrist and hips but can affect other bones such as the arm or pelvis.
What causes osteoporosis?
In childhood, bones grow and repair very quickly, but this process slows as you get older. Bones stop growing in length between the ages of 16 and 18, but continue to increase in density until you are in your late 20s. From about the age of 35, you gradually lose bone density. This is a normal part of ageing, but for some people it can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures.
Other factors which increase the risk of developing osteoporosis include:
Symptoms of osteoporosis
There are often no warning signs for osteoporosis until someone experiences a fracture, often after a minor fall.
The most common injuries in people with osteoporosis are wrist fractures, hip fractures or fractures of the spinal bones (vertebrae).
If your doctor suspects you have osteoporosis, or are at high risk of developing the condition, you may be referred for a bone density scan (DEXA scan). This is a short and painless procedure which helps to assess your risk of a fracture.
Treatment for osteoporosis is based on treating and preventing fractures and using medication to strengthen your bones. The decision about what treatment, if any, you have will depend on your risk of fracture. This will be based on a number of things such as the results of your DEXA scan and your age.
It is important people at risk of osteoporosis take steps to help keep bones healthy and reduce their risk of developing the condition. This may include:
The so-called Mediterranean diet – a diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and olive oil – could strengthen bones and protect against osteoporosis.
As well as an appropriate diet, it might be useful to take supplements of calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is necessary to absorb calcium and form healthy bones, and is mainly obtained through exposure to sunlight. However, the time required to make sufficient vitamin D varies according to a number of environmental, physical and personal factors. Enjoying the sun safely, while taking care not to burn, can provide the benefits of vitamin D without unduly raising the risk of skin cancer.
There is currently no standard definition of what the optimal level of vitamin D is, and vitamin D levels can vary between individuals.
Vitamin D can also be obtained through the diet, particularly through oily fish. However, estimates suggest that 90% of the vitamin D requirement comes from sunlight.
Vitamin D supplements and specific foods can help to maintain sufficient levels of vitamin D, particularly in people at risk of deficiency.
Living with osteoporosis
If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of a fall, such as removing hazards from your home and having regular sight and hearing tests.
There are also ways to help your recovery from a fracture. This might include: