Bones are typically at their strongest in early adult life and their density usually continues to increase until a person’s late twenties. Later in life bone density naturally decreases, causing bones to become more fragile and more easily damaged. While this happens to everyone eventually as part of the ageing process, some people develop osteoporosis, where the decrease in bone density happens much faster than usual.
According to NHS statistics over three million people in the UK are affected by this condition. It can affect both men and women, and while it is more common in older people, it can occasionally affect those that are younger.
Older women are often more at risk as the hormonal changes that menopause brings can have a direct impact on bone density. This is even more likely if a woman experiences early menopause (before the age of 45), has had a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) or has had absent periods for more than six months.
Often the first signs of osteoporosis occur with sudden injuries such as wrist or hip fractures, where the bone has weakened to the extent that a sudden impact causes a break. If your GP suspects that you are affected by the condition, or may be in the future, they may refer you to a DEXA scan and suggest several simple lifestyle changes that can slow the process.
What is a DEXA scan?
A DEXA (DXA) scan is a short, painless procedure designed to measure bone mineral density (BMD). By comparing your bone mineral density to that of a healthy young adult and someone the same age and sex as you, the difference calculated will assess how likely it is that you have the condition. This score is referred to as your T-score. A score of -2.5 SD (standard deviation) or below is regarded as osteoporosis.
How can I increase bone density?
NHS choices recommends a variety of lifestyle adjustments to prevent and combat osteoporosis, including an improved diet and exercise regime to promote healthy bones.
Eating a healthy balanced diet that is rich in calcium and vitamin D is promoted by NHS Choices as a way of preventing osteoporosis. Calcium is a mineral key to maintaining bone density and can be found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, tofu and yoghurt.
Similarly, Vitamin D is also important to the upkeep of healthy bones and teeth. The NHS recommends that all adults consume 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day which can be easily implemented into a healthy diet through foods such as oily fish, red meat, liver, eggs, fortified foods and dietary supplements.
NHS guidelines recommend that adults aged 19 to 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week to maintain a healthy lifestyle. A regular exercise routine, with a focus on weight bearing and resistance exercises in particular, can help prevent a reduction in bone density.
Weight bearing exercises such as running, skipping, dancing or aerobics are excellent ways to strengthen the muscles and joints and for older adults a brisk daily walk can also be of benefit. Resistance exercises such as press-ups or weight lifting are also recommended to prevent osteoporosis, as the movement of the muscle tendons pulling on the bones promote bone strength. However, if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis it is advisable to check with your GP before embarking on any new exercise regime.
Excessive alcohol consumption and smoking are also factors that are associated with the condition. NHS choices suggests that quitting smoking and not drinking more than the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week can also prevent a loss in bone density.