People think of osteoporosis as something that affects you later in life, yet bone loss can start as early as your 30s.
Few women are aware that their risk of getting osteoporosis starts long before menopause, so prevention is far from their minds. Unfortunately, once you develop this disorder of brittle bones and increased risk for fracture, there’s no going back. Here’s why you need to start thinking about bone health today.
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones, named from the Latin meaning “porous bones”. While many think of bones as fixed structures, they’re actually being remodeled and rebuilt all the time.
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If you could look closely at a bone, you’d see that it has many tiny holes scattered throughout, like a honeycomb. The bigger these holes get, the more porous and prone to breakage that bone becomes. Osteoporosis occurs when the holes inside the bones are too big due to nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrient deficiency is at the core of osteoporosis and can be brought on by medication side effects that deplete nutrients or by genetics. In order for bones to stay dense and strong, the body needs a steady supply of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese.
Osteoporosis can occur at any age but is most common in older adults, especially post-menopausal women. Reproductive hormones protect women’s bone density, so when levels dramatically fall off around menopause, bone health becomes a greater risk.
More than 24 percent of women over age 65 have osteoporosis, compared with just over 5 percent of men over age 65. (1)
How to Prevent Osteoporosis
It is entirely possible to prevent osteoporosis, even if it runs in your family. The primary ways to prevent osteoporosis are lifestyle choices. They include: (2)
- Regular exercise
- Eating a healthy diet
- Not smoking
The best types of exercise for protecting and building bone density are weight bearing and resistance types. Weight-bearing forces the bones to work against gravity and increase strength. These include: (3)
- Stair climbing
- Playing tennis
- Yoga (like these simple yoga poses for osteoporosis)
Resistance training also supports bone health, and this primarily includes lifting size-appropriate weights. You don’t have to become a bodybuilder to support bone health, you just need to lift slightly heavy things on a regular basis.
Risk Factors and Symptoms
Some people are more prone to osteoporosis than others, particularly when certain factors are present. These factors include: (4)
- Low calcium or vitamin D levels
- Too much vitamin A
- Excess caffeine
- High salt intake
- 3 or more alcoholic drinks per day
- Smoking or secondhand smoke exposure
- Being underweight
- Taking certain medications
- Having certain diseases (IBD, RA, and lupus)
- A sedentary lifestyle
Osteoporosis usually doesn’t show symptoms until the disease has progressed. These symptoms can include: (5)
- Back pain
- Loss of height over time
- Stooped posture
- Bones that fracture more easily than expected
Diagnosis and Testing for Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is diagnosed in a few ways. If you have a family history of bone density problems, your doctor might recommend bone density testing before menopause or shortly after, to see if early intervention needs to take place.
Bone density scans are painless, easy tests that take 20 to 30 minutes to complete. They are a type of x-ray, typically done on the arm or wrist. (6)
You can also get labs done to test your vitamin D and calcium levels since these are two nutrients that are vital for bone health. They might also test thyroid levels since thyroid disease is a risk factor for bone density problems. Finally, doctors can also assess hormones or other markers to get a picture of overall health. (7)
While there is no cure for osteoporosis, it can be addressed with lifestyle factors and nutrient supplementation. These often include calcium, vitamin D, and exercise.
6 Nutrients That Protect Bone Health
To keep bones healthy, it’s important to eat plenty of bone-building and anti-inflammatory foods. These are the top options that support bone health, whether you’re in your 30s, 60s, or beyond.
Calcium: Calcium is the main building block of bones. If you don’t eat dairy, be sure to eat plenty of foods that are high in calcium, like sardines, spinach, chia seeds, almonds, rhubarb, and figs.
Vitamin D: In order to absorb calcium, the body needs adequate levels of vitamin D. Eat plenty of salmon, mackerel, and mushrooms and be sure to get enough sun. You might want to consider supplementing with vitamin D if you don’t live near the equator since you won’t be able to get enough sun exposure for half of the year.
Magnesium: Magnesium works in synergy with vitamin D and calcium. Food sources include spinach, almonds, dark chocolate, avocado, bananas, and other nuts.
Manganese: You don’t need as much manganese as the above minerals to get your required fill, and fortunately, few people run too low on this nutrient. Find it in foods like nuts, leafy greens, and dark chocolate.
Selenium: Selenium is an essential mineral required for thyroid hormone synthesis, and many people are deficient. The best food sources include Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, eggs, spinach, and any kind of meat.
Protein: Bones require enough macronutrients to maintain density and when paired with weightlifting, eating enough protein can help support the skeletal structure. Choose high-quality, grass-fed and wild-caught protein sources for the most health benefits. (8)
A Critical Time for Bone Health
Most people don’t think of osteoporosis until they’re older, or worse until they have it. Prevention should start in your 30s and 40s when you have the chance to boost your bone mineral stores by dietary, lifestyle, and supplementation choices.
If you don’t eat dairy products, be sure to mindfully select calcium-rich foods, or support your bone health with high quality supplements.
Avoiding smoking or secondhand smoke exposure, and limit alcoholic beverages to best protect bone health. Start a regular exercise routine that pairs resistance training with weight-bearing exercises to promote long-term bone density.
While you cannot control every risk factor for osteoporosis, positive lifestyle changes will significantly lower your chances of getting the disease. Bone density peaks for women at age 35, and after that, especially if you are low in critical nutrients, it begins to drop every year that you age.
Osteoporosis is disease that leaves you with brittle, easy-to-break bones. Be sure to quit smoking, limit your alcoholic drinks, engage in resistance training exercises and eat a nutrient-dense diet to support bone health. These lifestyle choices will dramatically reduce your risk for developing the disease, and can even boost bone density once it has started to decline.