Your body’s backbone

Bones are literally the support system that holds the body together – but they’re not just there to keep us upright, they also protect our organs, produce blood cells and allow our muscles to work efficiently. 

Osteoporosis, which translates as ‘porous bone’ is a disease in which the density and quality of bones are reduced. As bones become more porous and fragile, the risk of fracture greatly increases. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women over age 50 will experience osteoporotic fractures, as will 1 in 5 men aged over 50. But it’s not just over 50s who are affected – more and more younger people, particularly women are experiencing osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis). Although fractures may not seem life threatening, hip fractures in the elderly actually double risk of death in the year following the breakage. 

Bone mass naturally decreases with age – with peak bone mass occurring by the age of thirty. But other factors such as diet and lifestyle can accelerate this decrease, leaving many people at risk of fractures and deformity. 

Risk factors for low bone density

1. Gender – women are more likely to develop osteoporosis because of hormonal changes that typically occur in the menopause. However men are also at risk particularly later in life as levels of testosterone decrease and activity levels fall. 

2. Low body weight – premenopausal women with a low body weight (particularly those with eating disorders or who are exercising intensely) are more likely to have low bone density. This is typically due to a fall in the bone stimulating hormone oestrogen – the first sign to watch for is amenorrhea (loss of monthly periods). 

3. Lack of physical activity – staying active helps to increase bone density. The best exercise for boosting bone density is weight bearing exercise like walking, jogging, dancing or resistance work such as lifting weights or body weight exercises rather than non-weight bearing activity like swimming or cycling. 

4. Smoking

5. Alcohol – people who drink more than 2 units of alcohol daily have a 40% increased risk of osteoporotic fractures, compared to people with moderate or no alcohol intake.

6. Poor nutrition – low calcium and vitamin D intake has been shown to increase risk of low bone density. 

7. Family history of low bone density or fractures

8. Ethnicity – Caucasian and Asian populations are at higher risk of osteoporosis. 

Reduce your risk

1. Participate in regular weight-bearing activity – aim for at least 30-40 minutes three or four times a week. Choose activities like walking, jogging, sports, and some strengthening resistance based exercises. Exercises to improve balance will also help to reduce risk of falls and fractures. 

2. Eat a nutritious diet with plenty of calcium rich foods – dairy products, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, whole grains and bony fish are all good choices. 

3. Avoid severe weight-loss diets

4. Up your vitamin D by getting at least 10 minutes of daylight every day.

5. Avoid smoking and second-hand smoking

6. Limit alcohol intake

7. Visit your GP if you’re concerned about being underweight, particularly if your periods have stopped.

So although bone health may not be at the top of your priority list right now, don’t leave it until it’s too late to rebuild the scaffolding holding your body together. 

If you’d like to check your risk, the International Osteoporosis Foundation have this quick one minute risk test.

Written by Ruth Tongue
(MSc Nutrition)