Every Halloween, spooky skeleton sightings offer a friendly reminder to take an inventory of our own bones. Bone health is an important part of general health, especially in old age, and is a major contributor to our quality of life. Bones allow us to move and protect our organs. So it’s important to protect our bones, especially from common and preventable diseases like osteoporosis.
Although osteoporosis can occur in men, it is most common in women. The risk of osteoporosis increases with the transition into menopause, as hormonal imbalances accelerate bone loss and weaken bones. Osteoporosis carries the risk of severe fractures (broken bones) such as the hip, wrist, or spine, even with minor falls or trauma.
Our bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. There are cells in our bones that work to remove old bone and then cells to replace it by making new bone. This process is well balanced until our 30s. However, as we age, we are unable to produce enough bone to keep pace with bone loss.
Osteoporosis is generally asymptomatic, which means that you don’t “feel” anything that tells you that your bones are weak. You may not know you have it until you break a bone. It is recommended that most women be tested for osteoporosis over the age of 65 and men over the age of 70. However, there are certain health conditions and medications (like steroids) that can mean you should get tested sooner. Therefore, it is important to speak to your doctor about when you should be examined for this.
Screening can be done with a bone density scan called a DEXA scan, which can tell you if you have weak bones that can put you at increased risk of fractures. Another way to test bone density is with an Achilles heel scanner, which uses sound waves to test your heel bone density and takes less than 5 minutes. The heel is measured because its bone resembles that of the spine and hip, where osteoporotic fractures are most common.
There are osteoporosis prevention options, as well as lifestyle changes, that can help treat osteoporosis if you are diagnosed. Exercises with weights (like walking and yoga) can help keep your bones strong. It is recommended that you do this exercise for about 30 minutes a day for at least five days a week. You should also avoid smoking and excessive alcohol, and make sure that you are getting adequate calcium and vitamin D through your diet or dietary supplement, after consulting your doctor.
When osteoporosis is diagnosed, medications are available that can either help build more bone or prevent further bone loss. These drugs all help to reduce the risk of a broken bone. You should also make adjustments to reduce the risk of a broken bone such as your home.
Don’t be surprised by osteoporosis. You can control your risk by getting checked up at the recommended age and by building healthy lifestyle habits that can prevent bone loss. Have a happy Halloween!
– Leah Krull, MD, is a rheumatologist who looks after patients with Leah Walsh, NP at Barton Rheumatology. Discuss possible increased risk factors for osteoporosis with your family doctor, who can refer you to a rheumatologist or recommend early diagnosis. More information about Barton Rheumatology can be found at BartonHealth.org/Rheumatology.
Your rheumatology care team
Leah Krull, MD, received her PhD from the University of South Florida College of Medicine after completing a Masters of Science degree in Biophysics and Physiology from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She moved in in 2018 with her husband, another doctor from Barton Health, and Tahoe Orthopedic and Sports Medicine doctor Dr. Jeffrey A. Orr, to Lake Tahoe. She enjoys being outside and taking in the Lake Tahoe scenery while boating, hiking, and anything else out and about with her two daughters. Dr. Krull is passionate about helping the community be healthy, active, and manage their health conditions. She takes a holistic approach to treating patients, empowering them to compensate for their illness with medications and lifestyle changes that improve their health and quality of life.
Leah Walsh, NP, grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and received her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she began a career as a nurse at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. With a deep love for traveling and exploring new places, Leah decided to take on a role as a travel nurse. From Seattle to Maui and even South Lake Tahoe, she loved living in different cities and working in great hospitals in different parts of the United States. In her travels, she was inspired by many caregivers who encouraged her to continue her education. Now, as a nurse, she has made the decision to join Barton Health and provide rheumatology services to the Lake Tahoe community.