Are You at Risk of Osteoporosis?

You probably make sure that your children are receiving their daily recommended amount of calcium… But what about you? 

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Mums have got the message about how to build healthy bones in their kids, but have they forgotten about themselves? Here are the scary facts: half of all Australian women over the age of 60 will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture. Someone is admitted to an Australian hospital with an osteoporotic fracture every five to six minutes – in 10 years, it will be one every three to four minutes. And while it’s true that the effects of osteoporosis are mostly felt in old age, medical scientists say that what we do in our youth, twenties and thirties may have an important effect on our chances of avoiding the crippling disease.

What is osteoporosis?

The term osteoporosis literally translates from Greek as ‘holes in the bones’. Osteoporosis is a disease characterised by reduced density and quality of bone, increasing risk of fractures, particularly of the spine, hip and wrist. Throughout our lives bones are continually building, breaking down and rebuilding to ensure they are repaired when needed and remain strong. In our first couple of decades of life, the rate of bone formation exceeds that of bone loss. But as we get older, the reverse becomes true.

Bones reach their maximum strength and density between the ages of 20 and 30 years. After the age of about 40, the rate of bone loss increases and bone mass is lost. How healthy and strong your bones are later in life depends on the bone mass accumulated during your youth and your subsequent rate of bone loss.

Who’s at risk of osteoporosis?

Being a woman makes you automatically at risk of getting osteoporosis because females start with lower bone density than men and they lose bone mass more quickly as they age, says endocrinologist Dr Sonia Davison of the Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health. According to some figures, between the ages of 20 and 80, the average woman loses one third of her hipbone density, compared to a bone density loss of only a quarter in men.

Osteoporosis risk factors

  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Hormonal deficiency – late onset of menstrual periods (after age of 15-16 years), early menopause (under 45 years)
  • Long-term use of certain medications, such as corticosteroids for rheumatoid arthritis and asthma
  • Chronic health conditions – rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease, malabsorption disorders, chronic liver disease, chronic kidney disease
  • Inadequate amounts of calcium in the diet
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Alcohol – more than two standard drinks per day
  • Excessive caffeine intake – 5-6 cups or more a day
  • Physical inactivity

Ways to lower your risk of osteoporosis today

1. Eat a healthy diet

Besides lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, the whole family’s diet should include calcium-rich foods such as dairy products (milk, cheese and yoghurt). Women over 18 need a minimum of 1000mg of calcium a day. As a guide, a 250ml cup of calcium-enriched low-fat milk has as much as 440mg, a 35g chunk of parmesan has 385g, and a medium-sized orange has 50mg. While officially the amount of calcium for pregnant and breastfeeding women is the same (1000mg), it’s vital at this time that the intake is adequate. Normal pregnancy and breastfeeding is associated with some bone mineral loss, which generally recovers in six to 12 months.

2. Get some Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a vital role in increasing calcium absorption in the body and the depositing of calcium to bone. The body’s main source of Vitamin D comes from the skin being exposed to UVB rays from the sun. Recent research has found more and more people are becoming deficient in Vitamin D due to more time being spent indoors. You only need 15 minutes or so a day – it still pays to be sun smart at peak sunlight periods between 10am and 3pm, particularly in summer. Your GP can help you work out the best times and ways to get your Vitamin-D fix.

3. Do weight-bearing exercise

It can be difficult as a mum with young kids to fit in a solid 30 minutes or so of brisk walking to your day, but regular weight-bearing and strength-training exercises increase bone mass at all ages, help maintain bone strength and improve flexibility and coordination. Dr Davison recommends vigorous walking, tennis, dancing or, if possible, a jog. “While cycling and swimming are also good for you, they are not weight-bearing exercises,” she says, recommending women exercise three to four times a week for at least 30 minutes.

4. Get yourself checked

According to the Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health, women 40 and over should have their bone health reviewed by their GP, particularly if you are in a high-risk group or have a family history of osteoporosis. But if you have fears before the age of 40, talk to your doctor.