What you need to know about osteopenia and osteoporosis

What is osteopenia and osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a common disease characterised by deterioration of bone tissue and low bone mineral density (BMD) which can result in reduced bone strength and fracture. Osteopenia is the same as osteoporosis but your BMD isn’t quite as low and as severe as osteoporosis.

Bone tissue structures itself through resorption (breakdown) and reformation (build-up) from birth to puberty which is when your Peak Bone Mass is achieved. Peak Bone Mass is influenced by factors such as genetics, diet, physical activity, hormones and gender. Through your lifetime, your bone remodels itself so your old bone is replaced with new bone to repair tiny fractures that may have occurred and to help prevent bigger fractures or breaks. To determine whether you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, a dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan is taken to observe the grams of mineral content in your bones.  Recent research from the International Osteoporosis Foundation has found that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50, will have an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.

What causes it?

The underlying cause of osteoporosis is when bone breakdown becomes greater than bone formation, which then reduces your bone density.  This is usually caused by a lack of calcium, vitamin D and/or physical activity.

Hormonal changes, such as a decrease estrogen levels during menopause significantly impact calcium intake, and consequently your bone health.  Up to 200mg of calcium is lost in the first 3-4 years of menopause as calcium malabsorption occurs. At the same time, the process of Vitamin D being converted into its active form in the body also reduces, which impacts bone health.

Studies have shown that a nutritious diet rich in fruit, vegetable and dairy products is protective for BMD.  Additionally, the maternal diet plays a role in setting up a baby’s skeletal structure for life, so adequate calcium and Vitamin D are particularly important during pregnancy.

Am I at risk of developing osteoporosis or osteopenia?

Risk factors associated with increased osteoporosis risk include increased age, menopause, smoking, an inadequate nutrient intake, genetics, lack of physical activity and certain ethnicities.  On the contrary, a balanced diet rich in protein, calcium and vitamin D, may help to reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis. If you think you may be at risk of developing osteopenia or osteoporosis, ensure that you discuss this with your healthcare professional.