On Your Health

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How to Keep Your Bones Strong and Why it Matters

05 July 2022

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No bones about it, your skeleton is a pretty important part of your body and protecting bone health is something worth doing. After all, our bones allow us to move while protecting our organs, heart and brain from damage and injury. Guess where our bodies store minerals like calcium and phosphorous, and release them as we need them? Yep, it’s in the bones.

Despite serving as our infrastructure, bones aren’t static. They’re changing all the time, breaking down old bone and making new, healthy bone. When we’re younger, new bone grows fast. It outpaces the breaking down of old bone, resulting in increased bone mass. You’ve got lots of bone as a teen and young adult.  Most of us reach maximum bone mass when we’re about 30. As we age, our bodies continue to break down old bone and grow new bone, but not at the same rate. Older folks break down bone at a quicker rate than they grow new bone, so bone mass begins to decrease.

Building strong healthy bones during our childhood and teen years is important because it allows us to have a stash of extra bone mass to draw from as we age. The more you’ve got in your ‘bone bank’ (the higher your peak bone mass), the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis, a disease that causes weak, thinning brittle bones. Osteoporosis can weaken bones to the point that falling from a standing position can cause bones to fracture. 

Osteopenia, AKA low bone mass, is not a disease. People can have low bone mass as children or adults and may or may not develop osteoporosis. The trick is to maintain the bone density that you have, and to do your best not to lose more. A person who has low bone mass (osteopenia) can develop osteoporosis is their bones become less dense over time.

Bone mass and bone density: what are the factors?

A bone mineral density (BMD) test can be used to ascertain whether you’ve got bone density issues or osteoporosis, which it does by measuring the calcium and phosphorous in bones and measuring their density or thickness. 

It’s a painless, quick test. 

Who should check with their doctors about having a bone mineral density test?

  • Women or men who have broken bones, with or without trauma after age 50
  • All women 65 and older
  • All men 70 and older
  • Women younger than 65 who have reached menopause and have risk factors for osteoporosis
  • Men ages 50 to 69 with risk factors for osteoporosis

Some of us are at greater risk for bone density loss, osteoporosis and osteopenia. Here are some factors to consider when assessing your risk:

Your size. If you’ve got a body mass index (BMI) of 19 or less, are extremely thin, or have a small frame, you may have less bone mass to start with, so you’ll want to take measures to maintain what you’ve got.

Age. Bones naturally become thinner and weaken as we age.

Ethnicity and family medical history. People of white or Asian ethnicity are at greater risk for osteoporosis. If you’ve got a sibling or parent with the disease, your risk is greater. Same goes if you’ve got a family history of bone fractures.

Physical activity level. If your lifestyle is more sedentary, you may want to focus on adding movement to your days. People who are less active increase their risk of osteoporosis. Adding movement to your day doesn’t have to involve a lot of rigamarole. Park a little farther from the entrance of the grocery store. Walk up and down your stairs during commercials. Take a neighborhood stroll after dinner.

Hormones. For men, low testosterone can lead to decreased bone mass. Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss in men and women. Diminishing estrogen levels at menopause are a bone-loss factor for women, as is a prolonged period of amenorrhea (no menstruation) leading up to menopause.

Medications. Some drugs that could damage or diminish bones include anti-seizure medications like phenytoin (Dilantin), aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, corticosteroids like prednisone, cortisone, dexamethasone and prednisolone, selective serotonin uptake inhibitors and proton pump inhibitors.

Celiac disease and other disorders. People with eating disorders whose severe restriction of food intake leads to being underweight, or people with diseases like celiac, which decreases your body’s ability to absorb calcium, may want to talk with their doctors about bone health.  

How to take better care of your bones

There are lots of little lifestyle tweaks you can easily make to give your bones a break, so to speak. Strong bones need calcium and vitamin D, but these tips and tactics can also really help:

Enjoy a diet rich in calcium. How much is the right amount? For women ages 51 and older (and men 71 and older) the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 1,200 milligrams. For women 50 and younger (and men 70 and younger) the RDA is 1,000 milligrams per day.

Dietary calcium can be found in lots of common foods including dairy products, broccoli, sardines, almonds, kale, canned salmon with bones and soy products, like tofu. If it’s a struggle to get plenty of calcium through your diet alone, talk to your doctor about adding a calcium supplement to your regimen.   

Ditch the tobacco habit. Data shows us that one contributor to weak bones is tobacco use. 

Drink alcohol in moderation. Drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women, or more than two per day for men, may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Make sure you’re getting vitamin D. Why? You need it to absorb calcium. They work as a team. The RDA of vitamin D is 600 international units (IUs) a day for people ages 19-70. For those 71 and older, it jumps to 800 IUs a day. Vitamin D is found in fortified foods like milk and cereals, and also in mushrooms, eggs and oily fish like whitefish, tuna, trout and salmon. You can also get vitamin D from sunlight. When sunlight hits your skin, its ultraviolet rays team up with a protein (7-DHC) in the skin, which is then converted into vitamin D. While we’re chatting about sunlight, let’s debunk a myth right now. Sunscreen does not inhibit the production of vitamin D – so use it!

Weight-bearing exercise. Plenty of exercise is good for you! When it comes to your bones, weight-bearing exercise is extra good. Walking, stair climbing and jogging cause your tendons and muscles to apply tension to bones. This tells the bones to make more bone tissue. Your risk of fractures, osteopenia and osteoporosis decreases as a result, because bones become stronger and denser. Other weight-bearing exercises are dancing, jumping rope, tennis and hiking. 


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