Osteoporosis is a disease of the bones that occurs when a person loses too much bone, produces too little bone or both. When a person has osteoporosis, his or her bones become brittle and can easily break.
While osteoporosis can affect anyone, women over the age of 50 are especially susceptible. In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation notes that a woman's risk of breaking a hip due to osteoporosis is equal to her risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined.
In spite of the potentially harmful effects of osteoporosis, studies indicate that only 12 percent of people with osteoporosis have had a bone mineral density, or BMD, screening, which is the most reliable diagnostic test for osteoporosis. A big part of that is likely because osteoporosis does not always produce any recognizable symptoms, meaning many people may have the disease without even knowing it. Many women are first diagnosed with osteoporosis or bone loss after suffering a fracture, but there are steps women can take to lower their risk of developing osteoporosis.
• Get enough calcium and vitamin D. Calcium helps women develop strong, healthy bones, while vitamin D protects the bones and is necessary for absorbing calcium. The human body cannot produce new calcium, so it's essential that women get the recommended amount of calcium from their diets. Women 51 and older are advised to get 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily, and foods like low- and non-fat milk, yogurt and cheese are great sources of calcium. Women can get vitamin D from sunlight; certain foods, including fatty fish such as salmon and tuna; and vitamin D supplements.
• Eat bone-healthy foods. The National Osteoporosis Foundation notes that recent research has found that blueberries, olive oil, soy beans, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may promote bone health. Women also should know that even though certain foods may contain calcium, that does not necessarily make them ideal for bone health. Beans, for example, contain calcium, but they also are high in phylates, which can interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium. Soaking beans in water for several hours before cooking them can reduce their levels of phylates.
• Watch what you drink, too. It's not just foods that can contribute to osteoporosis. The beverages women drink also can affect their risk. Caffeine can decrease calcium absorption and contribute to bone loss, so drink beverages like coffee and caffeinated tea and soft drinks in moderation. Heavy alcohol consumption also can cause numerous negative side effects, not the least of which is bone loss, so women should only drink alcohol in moderation.
• Update your fitness regimen. Women can strengthen their bones by including some high-impact weight-bearing exercises, which include dancing, hiking, jogging and jumping rope, in their fitness regimens. In addition, add some muscle-strengthening exercises, such as light weightlifting, to your routine. Yoga and Pilates also can make valuable additions to an exercise regimen, helping to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls, but women should discuss such exercises with their physicians before diving in, as some of the positions in yoga and Pilates may not be safe for older women at heightened risk of osteoporosis.
More information about osteoporosis can be found at www.nof.org.