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What Causes Low Bone Density?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 20 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
Bone Density Scan Bone Density

Low bone density is a problem affecting many women, particularly as they approach middle-age and certainly after menopause. It is estimated that 40% of all post-menopausal Caucasian women have low bone density and a proportion of these women will go on to develop osteoporosis, with a high risk of bone fractures.

However, by adopting certain habits early on in life, it is possible to prevent low bone density and reduce the risks of developing osteoporosis.

What Is Normal?

There is a normal rate of decline of bone density (also known as bone mass) in both men and women, as they age. Bone mass increases in childhood and the maximum is achieved by early adulthood – after that, it will gradually decline for the rest of your life. In women, this decline is increased during menopause; in fact, a woman can lose up to 20% of her total bone mass in the 3-6 years after menopause.

This puts older women at a higher risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture than men of the same age. In general, the best way to prevent osteoporosis is to try and achieve as high a bone density as possible by early adulthood, so you can ‘afford’ to lose some as you age. This can be done by an appropriate diet and regular exercise of the right type.

How Does Bone Lose Density?

Bone is in a constant state of flux, with old bone being constantly reabsorbed and new bone being deposited instead. This turnover helps to keep bones healthy and also to repair any minor damage form wear and tear.

Generally, this process is kept in balance but it can be unbalanced by a number of different reasons – for example, as a result of disease, hormonal changes (e.g. after menopause), diets too low in calcium and vitamin D or as a normal result of ageing. When more old bone is taken up than new bone deposited, this results in thinning bone or, in other words, low bone density and in extreme cases, results in osteoporosis.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a skeletal disease which affects both men and women (about 5 in every 100 people in the UK), although it is 4 times more common in women. It is literally “porous bones” and it results when bones lose density or mass because of lost minerals, especially calcium, leading to weak, brittle bones that are much more susceptible to fractures and breakage.

These can occur anywhere on the skeleton but are more common in the hips, wrists and the back (spine) and can be very painful and disfiguring. Osteoporosis is especially deadly because it is a “silent disease”, often with no obvious symptoms. Your bones won’t feel any weaker and you can often be unaware that you are losing bone density at a dangerous rate.

Sometimes, if you do experience symptoms, you may not realise that they are linked to osteoporosis – for example, severe back pain, change in posture or loss of height.

Just being a woman puts you at a 4 times higher risk of developing osteoporosis than a man and being female, post-menopausal and over the age of 50 puts you in the highest risk group. Other risk factors are if you have a family history of osteoporosis, if you are thin or have a small frame, if you don’t exercise, if you smoke and consume excessive amounts of alcohol or if you have a poor diet or are anorexic. Certain medications can also put you at greater risk.

However, it is important to remember that while women are at the greatest risk, men can also suffer from osteoporosis, particularly if they have a low testosterone level, are smokers, don’t exercise or are suffering from certain illnesses and taking certain medications.

Bone Density Scans

One of the ways to detect osteoporosis is via a bone density scan. This measures the amount of bone (or bone mineral density) at a particular site in the body, using X-rays or ultrasound. The results will help to predict your risk of fractures in the future. If your bone density is especially low, your doctor may decide to prescribe some medication as treatment, as well as increasing your vitamin D and calcium intake and advising more exercise, especially of the weight-bearing type.

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