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Osteoporosis is common, affecting over three million individuals in the UK.  Every year, there are over 500,000 osteoporosis-related fractures, and every month, 1,100 deaths occur following a hip fracture.  The impact of osteoporosis can be devastating, but it is treatable and preventable.

What do you know about osteoporosis?

  • In the UK alone, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 will have osteoporosis.
  • Every three minutes, because of osteoporosis, someone experiences a fracture.
  • An estimated 3 million people in the UK suffer from osteoporosis
  • Each year, thousands of patients experience wrist, hip, or spinal fractures – and the numbers are on the rise

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis happens when bones become gradually more fragile.  This can progress painlessly until a bone suddenly breaks.  Our bones comprise a thick outer shell, which surrounds a strong mesh network filled with calcium salts, collagen (protein), and other essential minerals.  When the mesh becomes thin, it can break easily.

In the body, bones are constantly in a state of renewal.  Old bone breaks down, and new bone is made.  This happens more slowly in old age.  In young people, the body makes new bone faster than it breaks down the old bone, so bone mass is increased.

Over time, this process slows down.  We reach our peak bone mass level in our early 30s, and from that, bones break down faster than the body can create them.

More accumulate bone mass in your younger years, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age.  Think of your body like a bank, saving bone for later in life.

What causes osteoporosis?

As well as a low peak bone mass, there are other factors leading to osteoporosis:

  • A sedentary lifestyle (e.g. lack of exercise, not being active)
  • Drinking excess alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Low sun exposure and lack of vitamin D
  • Low calcium levels
  • Inflammatory conditions (e.g. arthritis)
  • Genetic variation
  • Drugs, such as steroids
  • Apoptosis (cell death)
  • Menopause – particularly early menopause

Osteoporosis is also more common in women than it is in men.  The most commonly affected areas in the body are the wrist, hip, and spine.

As the process is gradual, osteoporosis often displays no symptoms until a bone breaks.  However, as bones become weaker, you may notice back pain, a slight loss in height over time, or a stooped posture.

Treatment and prevention of osteoporosis

There are ways you can help to cut your risk of developing osteoporosis, and many start with your lifestyle.

Smoking is advised against, as it can increase rates of bone loss and cut levels of calcium absorption.

If you drink excess alcohol, this can decrease your bone formation and reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium.  Moderation is essential, and more than one alcoholic drink a day is considered excessive.  Alcohol can also increase your risk of falling, which is another risk factor for osteoporosis.

To prevent falls, wearing shoes with a low heel is recommended, and ensuring your general environment is as safe as possible.  Tuck away wires or cables, and avoid having slippery surfaces around the home.

Once osteoporosis has been diagnosed, various medications and therapies can be prescribed by the doctor.  After diagnosis, your specialist can recommend the best course of treatment.

Prevention, however, is always better than cure in this case.  Your lifestyle and the decisions you make can affect your bones and their health.  Factors such as nutrition, exercise, and daily habits can affect how likely you are to develop the condition.  While osteoporosis is common, it can be helped, and you have the potential to prevent it.