According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, roughly 54 million Americans are affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass. This isn’t a small matter: “This condition causes an estimated two million broken bones each year and often results in immobility, pain, placement in a nursing home, isolation and other health problems,” said executive director and CEO of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, Amy Porter(1).
This problem isn’t just painful for individuals, it’s expensive on a larger scale. In the United States, Medicare – publicly funded healthcare – pays for the repair and treatment of about 80% of the broken bones that are caused by osteoporosis each ear. This puts osteoporosis at number 10 in the top 5% of conditions that are most expensive to Medicare.
But despite its prevalence, most people don’t know that much about this common disease. Here are some little-known facts about osteoporosis and low bone density (or osteopenia) that may surprise you.
1. You Might Have Osteoporosis Or Low Bone Density And Not Know It Yet
Osteoporosis is notoriously difficult to catch in the early stages. “The first sign of osteoporosis is often a bone fracture – and by that point quite a lot of bone tissue has usually already broken down,” one source writes(2).
Known risks for osteoporosis include excessive steroid use(3), long-term restrictive eating disorders(4), a family history of the disease(5). If any of these apply to you, it’s important to be in touch with your doctor regularly about your risk for developing osteopenia or osteoporosis.
2. There Are Medications That Can Help, But Their Use Is Limited
Biphosphonates are a class of drug specifically developed to treat low bone density. These drugs include medications such as Fosamax, Actonel, and Reclast, and they work by inactivating a certain type of bone cell that reabsorbs bone tissue(6). Other medications can actually cause new bone to grow, strengthening your bones that way.
However, the benefits of these drugs do come at a potentially heavy cost. The US Food And Drug Administration has issued numerous warnings about these drugs – they’re directly connected to kidney function impairment, esophageal cancer, chronic pain and atypical fractures(7). And these risks only become more pronounced the longer you take them.
For this reason, there’s a time limit on taking these drugs. “The small benefits of bisphosphonates likely outweigh the harms during the first 3 years of therapy, but harms likely outweigh benefits for durations greater than 3 years,” write researchers at the Therapeutics Initiative(8).
3. Having Low Bone Density Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You Need Medication
If you have osteopenia, there’s a good chance that you don’t need medication – just better nutrition and lifestyle choices.
“Correction of calcium and vitamin D deficiency and walking 3 to 5 miles a week can often improve bone density in the hip and spine,” write the authors of a 2010 paper on the diagnosis and treatment of osteopenia(9).
4. You Can Prevent Osteoporosis With Diet
While calcium, vitamin D, and getting plenty of exercise are all important for promoting bone health and preventing osteopenia and osteoporosis, they’re not the only things you need to be conscious of.
Known risks for osteoporosis include excessive steroid use, long-term restrictive eating disorders, a family history of the disease. If any of these apply to you, it’s important to be in touch with your doctor regularly about your risk for developing osteopenia or osteoporosis.
“In addition to dairy, fruit and vegetable intake has emerged as an important modifiable protective factor for bone health,” one study reports. “Several nutrients, including magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K, several B vitamins, and carotenoids, have been shown to be more important than previously realized.”(10)
In addition to this, “Regular intake of cola beverages shows negative effects and moderate alcohol intake shows positive effects on bone, particularly in older women.” So put down the large soda and don’t feel as guilty about the occasional glass of wine.