To be honest, the last thing I’ve ever worried about is my bone health. I’m still in my 30s (though I’ll be leaving soon), and there seem to be so many other things to guard, take vitamins for, and get screened/tested for. Plus, osteoporosis and low bone density are older women’s issues, right?
Well, apparently I was wrong, and that women from as young as 35 can start losing their bone mass. Also, certain factors can put you at risk of bone issues, regardless of how old or young you are, such as smoking, drinking, and genetics.
I recently decided to take part in the Caltrate Bone Health Awareness Project, where I went for a Pfizer-sponsored bone scan to test my bone mass and was asked about my family history – my mom has osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle. Fortunately, my bone mass is healthy, which means I have more bone “in the bank”, and I’m less likely to develop osteoporosis as I age, depending on my lifestyle factors such as drinking, smoking and exercise.
Osteoporosis is often called a ‘silent disease’ because it progresses without symptoms or pain until a fracture occurs, usually in the hip, spine, wrist or shoulder. Scarily, one in 2 women and 1 in 5 men will sustain an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime. Fractures from osteoporosis are more common than heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. A woman’s risk of developing an osteoporosis-related fracture is equal to her combined risk of developing breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
I do a fair amount of weight-bearing exercise such as running, which is great for bone health, but the scan was still a big relief, based on my genetics, the fact that I used to smoke many years ago, and since my calcium intake is not always optimal (try this calcium calculator – it showed that I’m not getting enough calcium through my diet alone).
To calculate your optimal calcium intake, take the quiz here:
What affects bone health?
- The amount of calcium in your diet.A diet low in calcium contributes to diminished bone density, early bone loss and an increased risk of fractures.
- Physical activity.People who are physically inactive have a higher risk of osteoporosis than do their more-active counterparts.
- Alcohol and tobacco use.Smoking contributes to weak bones, while regularly having more than two alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of osteoporosis, possibly because alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
- Gender, size and age.You’re at greater risk of osteoporosis if you’re a woman, because women have less bone tissue than do men. You’re also at risk if you’re extremely thin (with a body mass index of 19 or less) or have a small body frame because you may have less bone mass to draw from as you age. Also your bones become thinner and weaker as you age.
- Race and family history.You’re at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you’re white or of Asian descent. In addition, having a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis puts you at greater risk.
- Hormone levels.Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss.
- Certain medications.Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, are damaging to bone. Other drugs that may increase the risk of osteoporosis include aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications and proton pump inhibitors.
Why calcium is important, especially for pregnant women
Almost every cell in our body needs calcium to function properly. If we don’t take in enough, our body removes calcium from our bones to make it available for other important functions, such as helping to regulate blood pressure.
Vitamin D helps our body absorb the calcium we consume more efficiently. When we don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D from our diet, we can complement our intake with a supplement.
Calcium is also important for women during pregnancy and lactation. The average calcium demand of a developing foetus is 30g at the time of birth. 80% of this calcium is acquired during the third trimester.
If the mother does not have adequate dietary calcium before conception or during pregnancy, significant maternal bone density could be lost, possibly putting her at risk for osteoporosis later in life.
During lactation, the daily transfer of calcium from mother to baby ranges from 250 mg to 300 mg per day. This means that moms could lose 25 g to 30 g of calcium over a 3-month period of lactation, which represents approximately 3% of her body’s calcium stores. Younger moms (under 18 years) could lose as much as 10% bone mass density, and mothers carrying twins have a higher bone density loss than mothers carrying a single foetus.
How do you prevent osteoporosis?
- Include plenty of calcium in your diet.For adults ages 19 to 50 and men ages 51 to 70, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. The recommendation increases to 1,200 mg a day for women after age 50 and for men after age 70. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, almonds, broccoli, kale, canned salmon with bones, sardines and soy products, such as tofu.
- Pay attention to vitamin D.Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. For adults ages 19 to 70, the RDA of vitamin D is 600 international units (IUs) a day. The recommendation increases to 800 IUs a day for adults age 71 and older. Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish, such as tuna and sardines, egg yolks and fortified milk. Sunlight also contributes to the body’s production of vitamin D. If you’re worried about getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor about supplements.
- Include physical activity in your daily routine.Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, tennis and climbing stairs, can help you build strong bones and slow bone loss.
- Avoid substance abuse.Don’t smoke and avoid drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day.
Supplement with calcium
Calcium carbonate is the most concentrated form of calcium. Make sure you’re getting a quality bone health supplement, and not just anything off the shelf. Look for a calcium supplement that contains Vitamin D, as this aids calcium absorption. Some products also have added minerals that help to make your bones more flexible.