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Ask a Drexel Physician: Top 5 Ways to Protect Your Bones

November 4, 2013

Christine V. Soutendijk

Believe it or not, half of American women and one eighth of American men will have a fracture (broken bone) due to osteoporosis in their lifetime. Loss of bone strength slowly occurs with age, but many factors can speed it up, such as menopause in women. Osteoporosis occurs when a bone becomes so weak that it breaks with relatively minor injury. Fractures can be painful and even debilitating, especially in areas like the spine and hip. Previously active seniors can require nursing home care as a result of osteoporosis. The good news is osteoporosis is preventable and treatable. Here are the top five ways to protect your bones.

Get just enough calcium. Calcium is the building block of bones. The best source for calcium is your diet. Milk, yogurt and cheese are the most calcium-rich foods, but you can also get calcium in soy milk, fortified orange juice and vegetables such as broccoli and kale. A postmenopausal woman needs 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. Younger women and men need 1,000 milligrams a day. If it is difficult for you to eat enough foods with calcium, then consider a supplement. But remember, more is not better. A recent study suggested that calcium supplements may increase heart disease risk, so the current recommendations are to try to get your calcium in your diet, and only supplement if you are not getting enough.

Consider a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is also critical for bone health. Without it, you will not absorb the calcium that you eat. Most of our vitamin D is made in the skin when we are exposed to the sun, and minimal amounts are in foods. As a result, it is not uncommon to be vitamin D deficient. Unlike with calcium, the best solution is to use a supplement. Adult women up to 71 years old are recommended to take 600 IU daily and older women 800 IU daily of vitamin D3, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Get plenty of exercise. Ideally the exercise should be weight-bearing for the spine and hip, which means on your feet, such as walking, running or even dancing. Thirty to 60 minutes daily is recommended for your bones and can protect your heart, too. Exercise also improves your balance, which can prevent falls. Think about adding balance-related exercise — yoga or pilates — to your exercise routine.

Know your individual risk. Osteoporosis is very common. However, there are certain people who are at even greater risk — if you have a family member who had an osteoporotic fracture, or if you weigh less than 126 pounds. Certain medical conditions increase your risk for bone loss, such as hyperthyroidism, cirrhosis of the liver and some chronic bowel disorders. Other medical conditions may require medications that can cause bone loss such as corticosteroids, like prednisone, and some anti-seizure medicines. Talk to your doctor to assess your risk and to determine how to minimize it.

Give your bones a check-up. If you are at increased risk and are postmenopausal, or if you are simply over 65, consider a bone density measurement to check for osteoporosis. Bone density is measured with dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, also known as a DEXA scan. See your doctor after the test to review the results and plan your care.

Christine V. Soutendijk, M.D., is the assistant director of the Drexel Center for Women's Health and an assistant professor in internal medicine at the College of Medicine. Her interests include the effect of disease on mental health and quality of life, osteoporosis, menopause and metabolic syndrome. She sees patients in Center City.