As we age, many of our body systems begin to lose function. The skeletal system is no different as bones become more porous and brittle with age. Though once it has developed, osteoporosis cannot be cured, we can help to prevent it from developing or worsening if it has already occurred.
Osteopenia is defined as “thinning of the bones”. The bones begin to lose mass or become less dense, largely due to the aging process. When bones have lost a significant portion of mass or have become much less dense, we call it “osteoporosis”. Osteoporosis dramatically increase the risk of bone fracture which may cause skeletal deformities such as stooped shoulders or may cause more significant bone fractures in the hip or other large bones.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that up to 35 million adults may have osteopenia and over 10 million have osteoporosis. Most of those with osteoporosis are women who have a much higher rate of the disorder until the age of 75, when men finally catch up this may be due to the influence of estrogen which helps to keep bones strong before menopause.
Osteoporosis is more common in those with a family history, who are thin, who smoked and who have not taken hormones after menopause. Other risk factors may be low calcium and Vitamin D consumption, sun exposure avoidance, excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption, high thyroid levels and the use of certain medications. There is often little chance that osteoporosis can be “reversed” but the effects may be minimized.
When a child falls, he brushes himself off and keeps running. When a senior falls, it can be much more serious and result in a debilitating injury such as a broken hip. Reducing the risk of a fall is a major factor in preventing a dangerous injury.
Seniors are more likely to have cognitive and neurological conditions which may increase the risk of falling. Any condition or medication which causes dizziness or lightheadedness will increase the chance of a fall. Changes in coordination or balance may also increase the chance. While medication may be necessary and other medical conditions may be unresolved, minimizing environmental factors can be an important step to reducing the risk of fall.
Caregivers should eliminate obstacles in pathways such as rugs and objects on the floor. Rising and walking assistance should be provided when needed. The use of walking aids such as canes, walkers and rails should be encouraged and safety aids should be installed in risky places such as bathrooms.
Encourage Proper Diet
Eating a healthy diet which includes calcium, magnesium and Vitamin D rich foods should be encouraged. This includes dairy products, leafy greens and other vegetables. Sodas and caffeinated beverages should be avoided if possible and if diet becomes an issue, a supplement may be warranted.
Medications that are prescribed for osteoporosis must usually be taken on an empty stomach and the patient must remain upright for a number of hours after taking the medicine. Bone density that has been lost is unlikely to be replaced but ensuring adequate nutrition and following medical advice may decrease the chances that the condition will worsen.
Exercise has two functions in reducing the effects of osteoporosis. Use of the muscles puts healthy pressure on the bones which help to keep them strong. Muscle use also gives support to the bones and lost muscle strength may be a contributor in injury from falls as a person with weakened muscles may be unable to recover from overbalancing.
Regular exercise also increases general strength and coordination. Lack of exercise in the elderly may contribute to movement disorders and lead to “shuffling”. As an elderly person feels less stable, he or she begins to walk forward looking at the feet to make sure they are properly placed but unfortunately this also increases the chance that obstacles will not be noticed and make it difficult to recover from a misstep.
We cannot usually reverse osteoporosis once it has occurred, but we can help to keep it from getting worse and minimize the chance of a dangerous accident.