Osteoporosis affects half of all women and a quarter of all men over age 50.
Age 50 seems like a long way off for kids and young adults, so with the exception of drinking a glass of milk with dinner, we don’t think much about bone health until then.
But while there are things we can do in middle age to help slow the development of osteoporosis, if you want to minimize risk altogether, it’s essential to get an early start.
In fact, the best time to build bone density is when you’re growing—from childhood to early adulthood.
“We hit our peak bone mass in our 20s and 30s,” says Amelia Rode, P.A., of Carilion Clinic’s Bone Health Clinic, “Our lifestyle and environment in childhood and adolescence will affect both the early gains and the subsequent loss.”
Childhood, adolescence and early adulthood are the times when we can significantly increase our peak bone mass through diet and exercise. When we’re young, our bones grow rapidly. But as we grow older, bone rebuilding greatly slows down and we can begin to lose bone. Starting at about age 30, we begin to slowly lose bone mass over the decades that follow.
“There is a limited time that we can influence our peak bone mass,” says Amelia. “If our peak bone mass is low heading into menopause or old age, there is a higher risk of having osteoporosis sooner.”
Bone Mass and Osteoporosis
Bone mass is the measurement of how dense, or tightly knitted, our bones are. A non-invasive bone density test is typically given to women 65 and older, and to younger postmenopausal women who have certain health conditions or other risk factors. The test compares your bone mass to a baseline—the bone density of an average healthy young adult—and your score is measured as a deviation from that baseline.
Weaker, less dense bones break more easily—and heal more slowly—than those with high density.
The bottom line is: The denser your bones are at their peak, the better your odds of postponing or even eliminating the onset of osteoporosis as you age.
No matter your age when you start, caring for your bones is always a good choice. After all, broken bones in later life can lead to loss of mobility, early admission to a nursing home or even early death. And none of us wants that.
Your lifestyle is not the only way to influence bone mass. Risk factors for osteoporosis also include:
- Family history
- Your overall size (people with smaller frames are at higher risk)
- Race (Caucasians and Asians are most often affected)
- Certain conditions
- Certain medications and treatments (such as radiation to treat cancer)
The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends talking with your primary care provider about the risks and benefits of any medicines you take, including dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications.
What You Can Do
While some bone loss is inevitable with aging, keeping your bones healthy can minimize the risk and effects of osteoporosis. Amelia makes the following recommendations to build and maintain bone health:
- Quit smoking if you do
- Moderate your alcohol use
- Eat a healthy diet rich in dairy, nuts and leafy green vegetables
- Take calcium and vitamin D supplements in consultation with your provider
- Do weight-bearing exercises like walking, stair-climbing and weight lifting
And no matter your age but especially if you have seniors in your home, it's a good idea to take steps to prevent falls at home, such as cleaning up toys and securing area rugs
A healthy lifestyle is especially important for young women, many of whom develop eating disorders right in the middle of bone growth—and the effects can last a lifetime.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a teenager’s diet is insufficient in fat, protein, carbohydrates or overall calories, she can stop menstruating and her bones can develop poorly and be as weak as a woman in her 60s. And time is of the essence here: “This decrease in bone strength will continue until she has normal periods again, but, even though she can regain some bone strength, she may never catch up to where she should be normally.”
If you suspect an eating disorder, talk to your child and her pediatrician. Early intervention from specialists such as Carilion Clinic’s Pediatric Child Development team can help.
And if you are concerned about your bone density, talk to your primary care provider about whether a bone density test is needed.