More than three million individuals in the UK are thought to have osteoporosis. While osteoporosis is for the most part a symptom-free disease, the most common, and the most debilitating, symptom of osteoporosis is a broken bone. An estimated 300,000 fractures related to osteoporosis occur every year in the UK. Hip fractures cause the most morbidity, but fractures of the wrists, arms, hands, legs, pelvis, spine and ribs are also common in individuals with bones weakened by osteoporosis. Any fracture can cause significant reductions in quality of life.
Many fractures in the elderly are due to falls. For someone with weak bones, even a minor stumble can lead to a broken bone. Most falls are quite avoidable. Simple changes to the living environment can significantly reduce the risk of falling. Improving the lighting in corridors and on stairs by installing motion-activated lights or replacing low-wattage dim bulbs with brighter lights can help prevent an accident. Wearing sensible shoes, removing loose rugs and stray electrical cords, installing hand rails, and picking up clutter are easy ways to prevent falls.
Exercise is not only good for the bones, but it is also good for preventing falls and for improving general health.Weight-training is the best exercise for the elderly. Around age 30, the aging process begins with gradual loss of muscle mass. Lifting weights helps to restore muscle mass in older individuals, and it also stimulates the bones to rebuild and strengthen themselves. Stronger muscles help support the body and can prevent falls. Elderly people who engage in regular weight-lifting and light aerobics such as walking are more capable of caring for themselves and can live independently for longer than more sedentary people. Exercise is essential for preventing broken bones.
Until recently, most bone specialists urged people at risk of osteoporosis to consume large amounts of dairy products and other calcium-rich foods in the belief that they would help strengthen bones. However, more recent studies have thrown this field into confusion. Consuming large amounts of calcium has been shown to increase mortality, particularly in women. Other studies report that consuming large amounts of dairy foods, in particular cow’s milk, not only increases mortality but also seems to weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures.
Taking calcium supplements and consuming a lot of dairy does not seem to be a good approach to reducing fracture risk. However, consuming large amounts of leafy green vegetables and fish, in particular sardines and salmon, seems to be good for health overall in addition to helping to strengthen bones.
Taking vitamin D supplements seems to be a very good idea. Vitamin D is necessary to build strong bones. At least half of the UK population is thought to be affected by clinically significant vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is not naturally found at high levels in any foods. The only natural way to obtain vitamin D is to expose the skin to sunlight, a practice that is likely to lead to skin cancer. Sun exposure is impractical in many parts of Britain for much of the year, anyway, due to the weather.
See your GP
If you are over age 50, talk to your GP about getting regular bone density tests. If the test reveals your bones are gradually weakening, consult a bone specialist about medications. There are a number of medications that can slow down the progress of osteoporosis and help prevent broken bones.
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