Every year, 300,000 people in the UK break a bone due to osteoporosis, often just from a very minor bump or fall.
Bone cells are constantly rejuvenating; breaking down old cells and being replaced with new ones. As we age, the formation of new bone slows down making it harder to replace old cells, therefore decreasing overall bone mass.
Possible symptoms of osteroporosis include back pain, poor posture, and even losing height, though there is often no indication until you break a bone.
Low-impact fractures – breaking a bone from sitting or standing height – are common, and susually occur in the hip, spine or wrist bones.
Osteoporosis is diagnosed with a DEXA scan, a type of X-ray that can measure your bone mineral density.
If your GP suspects you may be at risk of osteoporosis they can use a screening questionnaire developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to predict how likely it is you'll fracture a bone from osteoporosis within the next 10 years.
Who gets osteoporosis?
As osteoporosis is caused by the aging process, those over 50 are at particular risk, with one in two women and one in five men in this age group in the UK likely to suffer osteoporosis fractures.
Women are up to four times more likely to get osteoporosis than men. The female sex hormone, oestrogen, plays an important role in the maintenance of strong, healthy bones and levels drop after the menopause. Women who go through the menopause before the age of 45 and /or have a hysterectomy before the same age, or miss periods for six months or more due to over-exercising or excessive dieting, are at higher risk.
Smoking can also affect bone health, with smokers 25 per cent more likely to suffer a fracture and at double the risk of hip fracture. This is because smoking affects vitamin D levels, calcium absorption, hormone metabolism, blood circulation and the natural healing process.
Other medical conditions that can put you at higher risk include thyroid conditions and coeliac disease, as well as the long term use of corticosteroid medication.
Common drug treatments prescribed for osteoporosis include alendronate, risedronate, and zoledronic acid, which slow down bone loss and maintain bone density. Others include strontium ranelate and selective oestrogen receptor modulators (SERMs).
Calcium and vitamin D are both important for maintaining healthy bones. The average adult needs around 700mg of calcium a day which can be found in a variety of foods, including dairy products and green leafy vegetables. Sometimes diet alone isn't sufficient though - particularly if you follow a vegan diet, are lactose intolerant, are taking corticosteroids for a prolonged period of time, or have digestive conditions like Crohn's disease.
Vitamin D works with calcium by increasing the body's ability to absorb it. Public Health England (PHE) now recommends all adults and children aged one and over need 10mcg of vitamin D a day and advises some people may want to take a supplement, particularly during autumn and winter.
PHE also recommend those aged over 65, pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with inadequate exposure to sunlight (including those who cover their bodies with clothing for cultural reasons or live in residential care homes) and people of African, Afro-Caribbean or south Asian origin, may benefit from taking a supplement all year round.
Weight-bearing exercise can help to maintain and build strong bones. If you have osteoporosis, you are at a higher risk of fractures and should avoid high impact exercise such as running and tennis. Instead, stick to walking and exercise machines so that you can control the intensity.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.