Bones becomes thin, weak and brittle, making them more susceptible to fractures – even a minor bump or fall can cause a serious fracture.
Rheumatologist Dr Ai Tran says what is difficult about treating osteoporosis is that there are usually no symptoms until a fracture occurs.
“Unfortunately, we cannot know the condition of a patient’s bones unless we obtain a scan or until there is a fracture,” says Dr Tran.
“If you are in a high risk group, it is a good idea to get a scan so that you can start an exercise program or increase your calcium intake to help prevent issues later on.”
You are more likely to get osteoporosis if you are over 65 years old, have a family history of the disease, through early menopause or low calcium intake.
Any bone can be affected by osteoporosis, but the most common sites are the hip, spine and wrist. Fractures in the spine due to osteoporosis can result in height loss or changes in posture.
What can I do to reduce my risk of osteoporosis?
You can minimise your risk of developing osteoporosis and a first fracture by getting enough calcium, vitamin D and exercise.
The best source of calcium are low fat milk and yoghurt. Non-dairy sources include almonds, leafy green vegetables, soy and tofu (including calcium fortified soy drinks), fish such as sardines and salmon (with the
bones) and nuts, seeds and sesame seed paste (tahini).
Calcium-fortified foods including breakfast cereals, fruit juices and bread also pack a powerful calcium-packed punch.
If you are not getting enough calcium, you can take supplements in tablet form.
However, Dr Tran says not everyone needs to take calcium supplements.
“Calcium supplements work well in nursing homes where people are elderly, don’t get out enough or move much,” says Dr Tran.
“Otherwise, if you are getting the recommended daily intake of 1200mg calcium through diet, you don’t need to take supplements.”
Dr Tran also says there is not enough evidence to support the use of glucosamine and fish oil to combat osteoarthritis and the results of several trials have been contradictory.
Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium and phosphorous from the stomach, regulates the amount of calcium in the blood and strengthens bone.
It is found in small quantities in a few foods, such as fatty fish like salmon, herring or mackerel, liver, eggs and fortified foods. However, you are unlikely to get enough vitamin D through diet alone and in Australia, we are lucky enough to
get plenty of sunshine. Without vitamin D, calcium will not be fully absorbed by your body. We need to expose our hands, face and arms to sunlight for about 6-8 minutes, 4-6 times per week (before 10am or after 2pm in summer, for
moderately fair people). Outside these times is not recommended, due to the increased risk of skin cancer.
Older people need exposure to sunlight 5-6 times a week. Dark skinned people need longer exposure times of around 15 minutes.
Osteoporosis can still develop despite the above measures. There are a number of effective antiresorptive therapies available which can help reverse the effects of osteoporosis.