What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes weak, porous bones. It is a major health issue affecting tens of millions of people each year, especially those over 50.

With the help of leading bone-health expert Dr. Deborah Sellmeyer, Healthline dispels some of the most common myths about osteoporosis.

While osteoporosis and resulting fractures are more likely to occur as you get older, they’re not inevitable. “There are a lot of things you can do to prevent fractures,” says Sellmeyer, who heads up the Johns Hopkins Metabolic Bone Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The top three health choices you can make to prevent breaks are:

  • getting enough calcium
  • getting enough vitamin D
  • exercising regularly

Yes and no. While it is certainly true that more women than men develop osteoporosis, men still can be affected. In fact, 20 percent of white men in American over 50 will suffer a bone fracture related to osteoporosis in their lifetime. While black men and women are at a lower risk of osteoporosis, those who do have osteoporosis have a similar rate of fracture. And, according to Sellmeyer, younger men are more likely to fracture bones than women.

About 90 percent of bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and age 20 in boys, according to the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. “[This is] not a time when everyone’s thinking about their post-menopausal fracture risk,” says Sellmeyer. “But it’s never too early to build bone density and develop the best possible bones for the rest of your life.” Thinking about bone health when you’re young, and developing good nutritional habits early, can help prevent issues later in life.

Osteoporosis is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. Osteoporosis leads to hip fractures and, according to Sellmeyer, around 25 percent of people die within the first six to 12 months after a hip fracture. Why? Hip replacement surgery can lead to problems like:

Most people fracture bones during a fall, but sometimes, weak bones simply break. “There are people who have spontaneous fractures,” Sellmeyer says. “One person just leaned over the bed of a flat-bed truck, and that pressure was enough to cause a fracture.” If you have osteoporosis, you can get a stress fracture in your foot simply from walking. “Even with hip fractures,” says Sellmeyer, “some people will say, “I heard it and I felt it, but I didn’t fall.”

Unfortunately, you can’t really see or feel oncoming osteoporosis. You may not know you’ve got it until you’ve broken a bone. You don’t feel your bones get weaker as you lose bone density, nor do you really start to suffer any specific adverse lifestyle consequences. “It’s a silent disease,” says Sellmeyer. “There’s no way to tell if you have it other than to get a bone density test.”

According to Sellmeyer, someone with osteoporosis is never going to get back into the “normal” range of bone density. In fact, a diagnosis of osteoporosis might mean you’ve actually had low bone density your whole life. In that case, says Sellmeyer, “trying to get your bone density higher than it’s ever been your whole life is not possible.” However, it is possible to rebuild bone. Osteoporosis medications can increase bone density by a few percent per year over three to four years.

Osteoporosis can significantly impact quality of life, ranging in severity from lifestyle disruption to hospital visits and even death. Proper preventive care and treatment can help reduce osteoporosis complications.

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