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What Causes Osteoporosis?

By Gray Rollins

According to the U.S. News & World Report Health Center, "Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break. Literally meaning "porous bone, it results in an increased loss of bone mass and strength." Osteoporosis debilitates millions of people every year, but there is good news - prevention is possible!

The skeletal structure of the body provides support for our muscles and protection for our vital organs; our bones are also a storehouse of calcium and other minerals. More than 99 percent of the body's calcium is stored in our bones and teeth, the other 1 percent travels throughout our body in our blood. Calcium is vital for heart and muscle function.

Our skeletons are made up of a smooth, tough outer layer of dense bone, a spongier mid section and a soft core of marrow where new cells are made to rebuild our bones. Our bones are constantly changing because our bodies depend on a steady supply of calcium to function properly. When we don't get enough calcium from our regular diet our bodies break down and rebuild bone to meet our needs. This is called "bone remodeling."

Many things can influence bone remodeling, like injury, illness, medications, exercise, diet, hormonal changes, smoking, heavy drinking and of course the normal aging process. When the body requires more calcium than we are able to consume, or if we aren't able to store the calcium we consume adequately it is leached from the spongy mid layer of our bones. They gradually lose their density making them weak and porous, and more prone to fractures. This is osteoporosis.

Most of our bone mass is established before the age of 30, and after about age 35, as a part of the normal aging process, our bodies begin to breakdown our bone faster than we are able to rebuild it. The natural decline in hormonal production is another contributing factor. When women reach menopause and their ovaries stop producing estrogen and bone loss accelerates. In men a reduction in the hormone testosterone also encourages bone loss.

There is no cure for osteoporosis, so disease prevention is vital to maintaining bone density. There are three key areas to consider when it comes to preventing osteoporosis: diet, lifestyle choices and medications.

To maintain strong healthy bones a diet sufficient in calcium and vitamin D are important from preadolescence and throughout adulthood. Calcium needs become greater in older adults whose bodies can no longer rebuild bone mass. Recent studies suggest that bone fractures can be reduced by 30-50% in individuals with low dietary calcium simply with the addition of a calcium and vitamin D supplement.

A few easy lifestyle changes can also influence our risk of getting osteoporosis. Smoking, low body weight and a lack of exercise are all contributing factors to raising our susceptibility to the disease. Weight-bearing exercises like walking, stair climbing, dancing and weight training help to increase bone density, keep muscles flexible and ensure better physical balance in people of all ages. Exercise also helps to regulate body weight to a healthy level. There is a direct link between tobacco use and lower bone density so smoking cessation is also recommended.

The use of medications can and does play an important role in the prevention of osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D supplements as mentioned previously are often paired with bisphosphonates like Alendronate and Risedronate, selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) like Raloxifene, and hormonal replacements like Estrogen and Testosterone. All medications have some side effects and these are best discussed with your doctor.

Though there is no known cure for osteoporosis there is hope and help in preventing this common and often debilitating disease of the elderly. By starting now and working to prevent bone density loss you'll have a stronger, healthier future.

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