Roughly 33 million people over age 50 in the United States have low bone density of the hip. About 4 in 10 Caucasian females, as well as a growing number of Asian and Hispanic women, in the U.S. will suffer a bone fracture from age 50 for the remainder of their lives. Each year, approximately 1.5 million people fall victim to bone fractures due to low bone density.
These are some of the startling statistics that illustrate the severity of bone disease, and health experts predict the problem will get worse. As more people are living longer, it is estimated that by 2020 one in two Americans over 50 will be at risk of developing osteoporosis of the hip, and a larger percentage of the aging population will likely develop low bone mass density (BMD) in other skeletal areas.
What Is Osteopenia?
Osteopenia measures as a lower bone density than is normal, but it is not a disease. It is the precursor to the bone disease osteoporosis, which signals a progression of bone weakness that may result in severe bone fractures. It is important to note that not everyone who has osteopenia will develop osteoporosis. Partaking in proper exercise and eating a sound diet are just a few steps you can take to keep bones healthy and prevent lower bone density before it progresses.
The amount of bone mineral in the bones determines bone mineral density. The lower your bone mineral density, the higher your risk of suffering bone fractures while engaging in normal daily activities.
A bone mineral density T-score between -1.0 and -2.5 defines osteopenia. For the average person, bone density usually peaks from ages 30 to 35. Not everyone is affected by the potential for bone loss in the same way, however. The rate at which you begin losing bone mass as you age depends on several natural factors in addition to other variables.
Caucasian and Asian females tend to lose more bone mass as they age than other groups, but all aging adults are at risk. Both males over age 50 with lower testosterone levels and postmenopausal women over age 50 with lower estrogen levels are at high risk for developing osteopenia. It is estimated that 35% of postmenopausal women develop osteoporosis.
Broken bones are the primary manifestation of osteoporosis bone disease among the elderly. Common bones that break are of the spine vertebrae, hip, and forearm. Bones may become so weakened to the point where they may break even without minor stress.
Depending on how strong your bones are early in life, you may not develop osteopenia at all or you may lose bone mass earlier and at a faster rate than you can build new bone. The denser your bones are at youth, the less likely you will develop osteopenia. Circumstances, like heavy alcohol consumption, current or prior illness, or use of certain anticonvulsant medications like phenytoin, can increase the risk for osteopenia.
While age, gender, and ethnicity are prime causal variables to consider, here are some other osteopenia risk factors:
Lifestyle causes for osteopenia:
- Lack of exercise
- Poor diet and vitamin deficiencies (e.g., vitamin D, vitamin K, and calcium)
- Cigarette smoking
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Poor exposure to sunlight
Compromising conditions that aggravate osteopenia:
- Prior cancer treatments (e.g., chemotherapy or radiation)
- A family history of bone disorders, such as osteoporosis, Paget’s disease, or osteomalacia
- Removal of ovaries
- Early menopause
- Atopic dermatitis
- Kidney disease
- Celiac disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Thyroid disorders (e.g., hyperthyroidism)
- Cushing syndrome
- History of eating disorders (e.g., anorexia or bulimia)
Since there are no symptoms for or pain due to low bone mass per se, it is a good idea to seek medical attention for proper osteopenia diagnosis, especially if one or more risk factors applies to you. A recurrence of minor bone fractures or clean bone breaks from minor stress are indicators that you should consider taking a bone density test, which is dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry that computes bone mass levels at the hip bone region.
Treating osteopenia so that it does not progress is crucial and entails a high level of consistency. Ignoring this condition may engender fairly unpleasant consequences, including an inability to participate in normal activities, severe bone fractures, chronic pain, or disfigurement from compacted bones, such as a spine vertebrae collapse that leads to hunchback. You can prevent accelerated bone loss by making healthy lifestyle choices. Many at-risk individuals suffer worsening bone loss due to neglect, so it is important to be consistent with your bone loss prevention plan and follow the osteopenia treatment options below.
A 2018 report published in the Journal Physical Activity and Health confirms that adults engaged in sports early in life have higher bone density than nonactive adults. This is especially true for women. But simply engaging in physical activity is not enough for osteopenia sufferers. At-risk individuals may experience bone injuries from vigorous activities and learn of their low bone mass status as a result.
Taking on the correct exercises at the appropriate intensity levels is very important. Osteopenia exercises should be weight-bearing with light-to-moderate intensity. These include training with resistance bands, tennis, running, walking, tai chi, climbing stairs, dancing, and yoga. If you have low bone density, be especially cautious of spine and hip movements. Always consult your doctor before taking on a new exercise regimen.
Osteopenia weight-bearing exercises:
- Resistance bands
- Tai Chi
- Climbing stairs
An effective osteopenia diet should address vitamin deficiencies that induce bone loss.
Bone-nurturing essential vitamins and minerals include iron, phosphorus, vitamin D, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. Meat, seafood, spinach, and beans are good sources of iron. Leafy-green vegetables, including kale, collard greens, and mustard greens, are a go-to source for vitamin K. Vitamin C is abundant in pineapples, mangoes, papaya, and berries—like strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.
Consume dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese for calcium. The dark leafy-green vegetables spinach and kale offer a considerable amount of calcium as well. Almonds, dark chocolate, whole grains, and artichokes supply magnesium for healthy bones. Consider taking vitamin and mineral supplements if you are concerned that your dietary intake of these nutrients is not sufficient.
Wheat-based foods tend to contain generous amounts of bone beneficial vitamins, like iron and magnesium. However, those at risk for osteopenia who suffer celiac disease—a gluten allergy that damages the small intestine—should avoid gluten whenever possible. A 2017 study published in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics highlights a strong correlation between gluten consumption and low bone mineral density in children newly diagnosed and already diagnosed with celiac disease.
Essential bone nutrients:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
Your body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure. Vitamin D regulates calcium function and sustains adequate phosphorus levels in the body—two functions that are crucial for maintaining strong bones. Aim to get at least 15 to 20 minutes of direct sun exposure on your bare skin daily.
Speak with your health practitioner about treatment options for osteopenia. If you have osteopenia or have a family history of low bone mass, certain medications may help protect bones and prevent bone loss. Medications, such as Fosamax, Reclast, and Boniva, are often prescribed to prevent bone fractures and increase bone mass.
Oxidative Stress and Bone Loss
The journal Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management published a recent 2018 study that implicates oxidative stress as a “fundamental mechanism in the decline of bone mass.” Oxidation occurs as a result of metabolic activity in the body. The reactive oxygen that the body produces causes damage to cells, mitochondria, and DNA. Chronic stress levels, a poor diet, cigarette smoking, and pollution are just a few things that aggravate oxidative stress.
Adhere to a sound diet full of antioxidants (e.g., vitamin C and vitamin E) and void of processed foods, sugars, toxins, and preservatives. The body produces the powerful antioxidant glutathione which is comprised of the amino acids glycine, glutamate, and cysteine. Consuming tomatoes, peaches, spinach, and walnuts promotes glutathione synthesis in the body.