If you’ve ever suffered a broken bone, chances are you came away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for the role the skeletal system plays in our quality of life.
There are a few things you may not know about bones. First off, they are alive. They are made of living, breathing cells. Throughout our lives, we continually lose and create new bone. But, once we hit 30, bone loss gains momentum and we often lose more bone than we’re forming.
Bone loss leads to osteoporosis, often called the “silent disease” because most people who have it are unaware. Prevalent in post-menopausal women, fractures of the hip, wrist or spine are the disease’s most serious complication. In severe cases, the bones in the spine can weaken and crumble. These spontaneous breaks in the spine are called compression fractures, which result in back pain, loss of height and a stooped posture.
Nurse practitioner Heather Karenbauer recommends patients in her ob-gyn practice receive regular bone density screenings starting in their early 60s. For women, menopause is a big factor as less estrogen means less bone protection.
“Screenings are critical,” Karenbauer says. “Especially since early bone loss carries no symptoms.”
Mona Philson had a baseline bone density screening at 57 years old, in conjunction with her routine annual exam, even though it was earlier than guidelines called for. It was a good thing she did.
“I was shocked to learn I had osteoporosis,” Philson says. “I couldn’t believe it. I eat well, I exercise and I have no family history of this disease, so how could this be?”
Philson’s physician explained that regardless of lifestyle and heredity, some people are simply predisposed to certain conditions. He prescribed her a bisphosphonate, but the side effects were unpleasant, and she discontinued the medication after three months.
“My doctor and I decided that my best option was to manage the disease by continuing the healthy lifestyle choices I’d been making with some modifications,” she says.
Protein-based foods help the body absorb much needed calcium, so Philson boosted her intake of those. To her already calcium-rich diet, she added a 1,000-milligram supplement of Vitamin D, along with 350 milligrams of magnesium. She loves to walk every day, which is the single best weight-bearing exercise for people with osteoporosis, and she uses 5-pound hand weights on the last stretch. Since strong muscles protect bones, particularly in the event of a fall, she also does a series of daily stretches and muscle-strengthening exercises with weights.
A staggering 54 million Americans have osteoporosis or low bone density, accounting for nearly two million broken bones every year. Philson is determined not to become part of those statistics.
“If my next scan shows I’m still losing bone, then I’ll revisit taking some type of osteoporosis medication,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ll remain vigilant in my eating and exercise routine and stay ever-aware of protecting and strengthening my bones.”