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What every woman needs to know about osteoporosis

A doctor showing an elderly woman an x-ray scan.

Osteoporosis is a silent disease that can lead to serious fractures, as well as back pain, loss of height and stooped posture. In fact, the disease is often not diagnosed until after a fracture has occurred.

While impacting both men and women, osteoporosis occurs more frequently in women because they tend to have smaller, thinner bones. As well, estrogen, that helps make and rebuild bone in women, drops significantly after menopause which can lead to bone loss. This is why osteoporosis and bone fractures are more common in older women.

Although osteoporosis can cause fractures in nearly any bone, they commonly happen in the wrist, spine and hip. In fact, 75 percent of all hip fractures occur in women (source: International Osteoporosis Foundation), largely due to osteoporosis. And, the consequences of osteoporosis-related fractures can be substantial, ranging from diminished quality of life and dependence on pain medication to increased depression and even permanent incapacitation.

Proactive screening for osteoporosis

Because osteoporosis typically has no symptoms until there is a fracture, it’s important for women to get proactively screened for the disease. Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, commonly referred to as a DEXA scan, is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends DEXA scans for women who are:

  • Age 65 or older
  • Over 50 and have broken a bone
  • Menopausal or postmenopausal with certain risk factors

The results of bone density testing can enable a woman’s doctor to make recommendations on how to reduce the chance of breaking a bone. Osteoporosis treatment often involves medication along with lifestyle changes. Bisphosphonates are the most common medications prescribed for osteoporosis.

The osteoporosis treatment gap

Long-term bisphosphonate therapy has been linked to a very rare side effect, in which the upper thighbone cracks and may break. This problem was widely publicized and led many, who were prescribed these medications, to stop taking them. Out of patient fear, use of the most commonly prescribed osteoporosis drugs fell by 50 percent from 2008 to 2012 (source: Journal of Bone and Mineral Research), and the trend is continuing.

“Fears about these medications has resulted in patients not being able to take advantage of the many benefits they offer,” says Stuart Weinerman, MD, Assistant Professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and Associate Chief, Division of Endocrinology, Department of Medicine at Northwell Health. “Diet, exercise and supplements are not enough to protect someone with low bone density.”

Medication, along with healthy lifestyle practices, remain the best bet in reducing the chance of a fracture in those identified as having low bone density. These practices include:

Exercise – Weight-bearing physical activity can strengthen bones and lower the chance of a fracture.

Balanced nutrition – A healthy diet with enough calcium and vitamin D can help maintain bone.

Quit smoking – Cigarettes can increase bone loss.

Limit alcohol – Drink in moderation. This means no more than one drink per day for women.

Find out more about osteoporosis prevention and treatment. At Katz Institute for Women’s Health, we’re here to answer your questions. Call the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at 855-850-5494 to speak to a women’s health specialist.

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