You probably do not spend too much time thinking about your bones—but maybe you should! After all, your bones are the foundation of your body, and it is important to take proper care of them. Just like the rest of our body, our bones change with age. By middle age (some say as early as 30) our bones begin to lose tissue density. While this is a natural process, it also puts us at risk of osteoporosis.
Undoubtedly you have heard of osteoporosis, but what is it exactly? Osteoporosis translates to “porous bones”, and occurs when bones become brittle and fragile from tissue loss. When our bones lose too much tissue, they become more susceptible to breaks. In later stages, bone fractures can occur even without serious injury. As though the pain isn’t bad enough, osteoporosis can also lead to such complications as kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis and hyperparathyroidism. It is often called the “silent disease” since there are rarely any symptoms in the early stages.
So what are the risk factors of osteoporosis?
Some risk factors are innate. Being female, Caucasian or Asian will heighten your risk of developing osteoporosis. Those with direct relatives that experience osteoporosis are also at higher risk. However, despite these innate risks, there are many lifestyle changes we can make to care for our bones and stave off osteoporosis.
Having enough calcium is one of the easiest ways to prevent osteoporosis. Our bodies need calcium to function on a daily basis. It plays an important role in bone and teeth strength, blood clotting and nerve impulses. 99% of calcium is stored in our bones and teeth. The rest floats about in our bodies as ions in our blood and intercellular fluids. If our blood calcium level falls too low, our bodies begin mining calcium from our bones, and consequently heightens our risk for osteoporosis. Our bodies do not naturally produce calcium, so we must obtain this vital mineral through our diet, but we age, our gastrointestinal system becomes less efficient at absorbing calcium, which forces our bodies to rely on our bones for the calcium it requires.
To prevent this, it is suggested that women over 50 should consume 1000mg of calcium per day, and men over 50 should consume 1200mg of calcium per day. But, don’t go nuts on supplements! A large shot of calcium can block intake of other important minerals such as iron and magnesium, and some studies have linked calcium supplements to increased heart attack risk. Dairy products such as milk and cheese contain the highest level of calcium, but if you are worried about the fats associated with dairy, other health foods that provide a great source of calcium, including spinach, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, almonds, and sardines.
For more on calcium, go here.
2. Vitamin D
Along with calcium, it is essential to get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D helps deposit calcium into your bones and regulates it in your blood. There’s no point in eating a calcium-rich diet if you’re body does not absorb it, after all. While there are minute amounts of vitamin D in food such as fish and liver, but the easiest (and cheapest) way of getting enough vitamin D is simply to stand in the sun. Your skin naturally produces vitamin D when exposed to UV light. 10-15 minutes of direct sunlight per day is all the UV exposure you need for your body to generate a sufficient amount of vitamin D.
For an indepth look at vitamin D, go here.
When it comes to prevention and health, exercise is almost always on the list. Like your muscles, your bones toughen up when you exercise. The best activities to strengthen your bones include weight-bearing exercises such as walking, running, hiking, and dancing, and strength training exercises, such as weight lifting. Exercise also increases balance, posture and coordination, which helps prevent falls, one of the main causes of bone fracture in sufferers of osteoporosis.
4. Stop smoking
Just as exercise is lauded for its many benefits, smoking regularly acts as a health detriment. Studies show those who smoke tend to lose bone density faster than those who don’t smoke. The amount you smoke is also positively correlated with bone fractures, that is, the more you smoke, the more likely you will experience a fracture in the future. Besides being linked to osteoporosis, smoking contributes to a slew of negative health consequences such as high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory disease and increased occurance of lung and oral cancer.
For those who already smoke, it is never too late to reverse the damage! Studies show that quitting will slow bone density lose and decrease the risk of bone fractures. It takes a few years of abstinence to revert back to non-smoker levels, but it’s never too late to put down that cigarette!
The key is to prevention start as early as possible. Prevention cannot be accomplished in one day. It’s a lifelong process. While there are some factors of osteoporosis we cannot control, there are always steps you can take to boost your bone health. Bone health is an integral part of good health as a whole. After all, no building stands without a good foundation.
So drink plenty of milk, go for that run, and bathe in the sun. Keep your bones strong and happy, and fight off osteoporosis before it ever happens.