Overview of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decreases, or when the structure and strength of bone changes. This can lead to a decrease in bone strength that can increase the risk of fractures (broken bones).
Osteoporosis is a “silent” disease because you typically do not have symptoms, and you may not even know you have the disease until you break a bone. Osteoporosis is the major cause of fractures in postmenopausal women and in older men. Fractures can occur in any bone but happen most often in bones of the hip, vertebrae in the spine, and wrist.
However, you can take steps to help prevent the disease and fractures by:
- Staying physically active by participating in weight-bearing exercises such as walking.
- Drinking alcohol in moderation.
- Quitting smoking, or not starting if you don’t smoke.
- Taking your medications, if prescribed, which can help prevent fractures in people who have osteoporosis.
- Eating a nutritious diet rich in calcium and vitamin D to help maintain good bone health.
Who Gets Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis affects women and men of all races and ethnic groups. Osteoporosis can occur at any age, although the risk for developing the disease increases as you get older. For many women, the disease begins to develop a year or two before menopause. Other factors to consider include:
- Osteoporosis is most common in non-Hispanic white women and Asian women.
- African American and Hispanic women have a lower risk of developing osteoporosis, but they are still at significant risk.
- Among men, osteoporosis is more common in non-Hispanic whites.
Certain medications, such as some cancer medications and glucocorticoid steroids, may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Because more women get osteoporosis than men, many men think they are not at risk for the disease. However, both older men and women from all backgrounds are at risk for osteoporosis.
Some children and teens develop a rare form of idiopathic juvenile osteoporosis. Doctors do not know the cause; however, most children recover without treatment.
Symptoms of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is called a “silent” disease” because there are typically no symptoms until a bone is broken. Symptoms of vertebral (spine) fracture include severe back pain, loss of height, or spine malformations such as a stooped or hunched posture (kyphosis).
Bones affected by osteoporosis may become so fragile that fractures occur spontaneously or as the result of:
- Minor falls, such as a fall from standing height that would not normally cause a break in a healthy bone.
- Normal stresses such as bending, lifting, or even coughing.
Causes of Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis occurs when too much bone mass is lost and changes occur in the structure of bone tissue. Certain risk factors may lead to the development of osteoporosis or can increase the likelihood that you will develop the disease.
Many people with osteoporosis have several risk factors, but others who develop osteoporosis may not have any specific risk factors. There are some risk factors that you cannot change, and others that you may be able to change. However, by understanding these factors, you may be able to prevent the disease and fractures.
Factors that may increase your risk for osteoporosis include:
- Sex. Your chances of developing osteoporosis are greater if you are a woman. Women have lower peak bone mass and smaller bones than men. However, men are still at risk, especially after the age of 70.
- Age. As you age, bone loss happens more quickly, and new bone growth is slower. Over time, your bones can weaken and your risk for osteoporosis increases.
- Body size. Slender, thin-boned women and men are at greater risk to develop osteoporosis because they have less bone to lose compared to larger boned women and men.
- Race. White and Asian women are at highest risk. African American and Mexican American women have a lower risk. White men are at higher risk than African American and Mexican American men.
- Family history. Researchers are finding that your risk for osteoporosis and fractures may increase if one of your parents has a history of osteoporosis or hip fracture.
- Changes to hormones. Low levels of certain hormones can increase your chances of developing osteoporosis. For example:
- Low estrogen levels in women after menopause.
- Low levels of estrogen from the abnormal absence of menstrual periods in premenopausal women due to hormone disorders or extreme levels of physical activity.
- Low levels of testosterone in men. Men with conditions that cause low testosterone are at risk for osteoporosis. However, the gradual decrease of testosterone with aging is probably not a major reason for loss of bone.
- Diet. Beginning in childhood and into old age, a diet low in calcium and vitamin D can increase your risk for osteoporosis and fractures. Excessive dieting or poor protein intake may increase your risk for bone loss and osteoporosis.
- Other medical conditions. Some medical conditions that you may be able to treat or manage can increase the risk of osteoporosis, such as other endocrine and hormonal diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, certain types of cancer, HIV/AIDS, and anorexia nervosa.
- Medications. Long-term use of certain medications may make you more likely to develop bone loss and osteoporosis, such as:
- Glucocorticoids and adrenocorticotropic hormone, which treat various conditions, such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Antiepileptic medicines, which treat seizures and other neurological disorders.
- Cancer medications, which use hormones to treat breast and prostate cancer.
- Proton pump inhibitors, which lower stomach acid.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which treat depression and anxiety.
- Thiazolidinediones, which treat type II diabetes.
- Lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle can be important for keeping bones strong. Factors that contribute to bone loss include:
- Low levels of physical activity and prolonged periods of inactivity can contribute to an increased rate of bone loss. They also leave you in poor physical condition, which can increase your risk of falling and breaking a bone.
- Chronic heavy drinking of alcohol is a significant risk factor for osteoporosis.
- Studies indicate that smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis and fracture. Researchers are still studying if the impact of smoking on bone health is from tobacco use alone or if people who smoke have more risk factors for osteoporosis.