Postmenopausal Osteoporosis: What You Need to Know

by Dr. Maurice Leibman on July 18, 2011

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones. It affects at least 10 million Americans – mostly women. Each year, more than 1.5 million fractures related to osteoporosis occur in the U.S.

Bones go through a constant cycle of loss and re-growth. As you age, bones are broken down faster than they can be re-grown, causing the bones to become thin and fragile. Women are at greater risk of osteoporosis because their bones are smaller and lighter than men’s. And as women near menopause, their bodies begin to produce less estrogen, which also accelerates the rate of bone loss. After menopause, women can lose up to 20% of their bone mass, increasing their risk of bone fractures. In fact, 1 in 2 women over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture related to osteoporosis in their lifetime.

Bone fractures not only impair your mobility and your ability to perform your normal daily activities, but they also increase your risk of having more bone fractures in the future.

Know your T-score

Your doctor can assess the strength of your bones with a bone density scan. Bone density scans are recommended every two years for postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. These x-ray tests are quick and painless and can be performed right in your doctor’s office.

The results of a bone density scan are reported as a T-score, which compares your bone density to the bone density of a healthy adult. The lower the T-score, the greater your risk for a bone fracture. A T-score of -2.5 or lower is defined as osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis risk factors

Certain factors can increase your risk of osteoporosis. These include taking certain medications, such as immune suppressants and blood thinners; certain medical conditions; a family history of osteoporosis; dementia; poor nutrition; low body weight; early menopause; a lack of exercise; long-term calcium deficiency; and vision problems.

Symptoms of osteoporosis

It’s important to recognize symptoms that may indicate the onset of osteoporosis. These include back pain or tenderness, a loss of height, and a slight curving of the upper back that occurs when spinal bones weaken and begin to collapse. Most importantly, be aware that most times osteoporosis is SILENT, so thinning of the bones occur without you even knowing, that is why a DEXA (bone density test) is important.

However, because bone loss begins to occur long before menopause, by the time symptoms appear, a great deal of bone loss has already occurred. That’s why it’s important for women of all ages to make bone strength a priority.

Make bone strength a priority

It is hard to grow new bone after it is lost, so prevention is important. There are things you can do to slow the rate of bone loss and help your body build strong bones.

  • Weight-bearing exercise both increases bone mass before menopause and slows bone loss after menopause. Just as muscles become stronger with regular exercise, so do bones. Studies show that active women have higher bone density than women who do not exercise. Aerobic exercise such as low-impact aerobics, walking, and tennis is good for both the heart and bones.
  • Calcium slows the rate of bone loss, so it’s important to get enough calcium in your diet or to take supplements if necessary. Good sources of dietary calcium include milk, yogurt, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seafood.  You can also buy foods such as juice and cereal that have been fortified with calcium. Women over the age of 50 require 1,200 mg of calcium per day; postmenopausal women or women 65 or older or need 1,500 mg per day.
  • Calcium cannot be absorbed without vitamin D. Women over the age of 50 need 1000 I.U. of vitamin D per day, while women older than 70 need 1200 I.U.. You can obtain vitamin D from fortified food products or from supplements, but the best source of vitamin D is sunlight. It is a good idea to get your vitamin D blood level checked at least once to make sure you are absorbing the vitamin D .Fifteen minutes of direct sun exposure a day helps your skin produce vitamin D – just don’t spend any longer than that in the sun or you may get burned!
  • Hormone therapy can slow bone loss after menopause. Estrogen has been shown to decrease the risk of hip fractures and spinal deformities. Talk to your doctor to see if hormone therapy may be right for you.

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