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Osteoporosis: Risk Factors, Signs, and Treatment

Osteoporosis is one of those conditions that’s commonly heard of but rarely fully understood. When most people hear the word, they connect it with the elderly and weak bones. However, there’s a lot more to it than that. Roughly 54 million Americans either have osteoporosis or are at an increased risk of being diagnosed, with some more at risk than others.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens the bones over time, which puts those experiencing it at an increased risk of fractures or broken bones. As the condition progresses, your bones could be so compromised that something as mild as bending over or coughing could cause a fracture.

While it may not seem like it, bone is living tissue that grows to replace old bone tissue that’s reabsorbed by the body. When the body isn’t able to create enough newer bone tissue to replace the old tissue (such is common with osteoporosis), the bone structure weakens, and you have an increased risk of fractures.

An increased risk of fractures presents several concerns for seniors. Chiefly, a fracture can be painful and expensive to recover from. Then there is also decreased mobility or function (depending on where the fracture is) to worry about. Perhaps most troubling are the studies that show broken bones increase the risk of death in seniors for up to 10 years after the fracture.

Who is Most at Risk?

Like most conditions, some people are more prone to develop osteoporosis than others. These risk factors can be broken up into two groups, demographics and lifestyle/diet. Of the demographic risk factors, gender is perhaps the most significant. Women, especially during or after menopause, are roughly four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. Genetics also play a large part in your risk of developing osteoporosis. Family history is considered an effective early diagnosis biomarker by some. Age is also a common risk factor, with bone density naturally declining as we age.

Luckily, there are circumstances you can control that can lower your risk of osteoporosis. For example, smoking or overindulging in alcohol can make you more likely to develop this disease. Also, some medications, especially if taken for a long time, can cause bone density loss. If you avoid these activities or items, it may help protect your bones. Finally, diet, especially one lacking in calcium or vitamin D, can lead to fragile bones. Making sure you get enough nutrients is another way to lower your risk of osteoporosis.

What are the Symptoms?

Generally, osteoporosis is considered a bit of a silent disease, as there aren’t many symptoms or the few that are present can be easy to overlook. In the earliest stages, someone developing osteoporosis may notice receding gums, weaker grip strength, or brittle fingernails. As osteoporosis progresses, you may notice a loss of height, as compression fractures in the spine can actually make you shorter. This can also lead to a stooped posture or pain in your back or neck. You may also experience common fractures from minor falls or movements.

So, if there aren’t many symptoms, how are you diagnosed? Due to the higher likelihood that women will develop osteoporosis, those at a higher risk (women commonly over the age of 65 or post-menopausal) should generally get a regular screening so that it can be caught early. Men should get screened if it’s suggested by their doctor after they easily suffer a fracture or are at a heightened risk due to their genetics.

Are There Treatment Options?

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, your next step is developing a treatment plan with your doctor. Likely one of the first things you’ll be tasked with is making lifestyle changes that can slow the decline of bone density loss.

You may also be prescribed one of the approved drug therapies for osteoporosis treatment. There are two types of prescription drugs for this: one type stimulates the production of new bone tissue, while the other slows down the absorption of older bone tissue. Alternatively, you may try vitamin and calcium supplements to manage your condition, though the debate is still open on the effectiveness. Any medications or supplements should be taken only under supervision or recommendations of your doctor, following their directions closely.

Finally, you should take steps to prevent falls around your house. Falls are the most common causes of fractures in seniors, so making your home more fall-proof can protect you from broken bones. Luckily, there are plenty of adjustments you can make to your home to either prevent falls or make them less likely to cause a fracture.

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Knowing the risk factors of developing osteoporosis and following up with a treatment and prevention plan are essential to lowering your chances of suffering an osteoporosis-caused fracture. While osteoporosis may be common, it doesn’t have to be severe!

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