Act now to fight ‘silent’ disease

Osteoporosis Australia is promoting its free online tool to help Australians assess their risk of bone breaks and developing osteoporosis.

Professor Peter Ebeling, head of Monash Health’s department of medicine in the School of Clinical Sciences, said the online survey was designed to help identify early those at high risk of osteoporosis.

“We thought there was a need for patients to take control of their bone health,” Prof. Ebeling told The New Daily.

“For some GPs, osteoporosis falls off the list because they’re busy managing other chronic conditions.”

Osteoporosis is defined as a “disease that makes bones become brittle, leading to a higher risk of breaks than in normal bone. Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, causing a loss of bone thickness (bone density or mass)”.

In 2016, the total annual cost of fractures was estimated to be $2.075 billion.

Know Your Bones summarises bone fracture risk by assessing age, gender, weight, history of fracture, bone mineral density and history of falls and lifestyle factors within the past 12 months. The risk of fracture over five and 10 years respectively is assessed for people aged 50 and over, and a summary is provided for all users (aged 18 and above), for further discussion with their GP.

It uses key research findings from the 26-year-long Dubbo Osteoporosis Epidemiology Study, the world’s longest-running, large-scale, osteoporosis study.

Know Your Bones is necessary because the condition is beset by misunderstanding. Myths about osteoporosis include that it only afflicts older women.

“One-third of broken bones due to osteoporosis occur in men, and they can occur in younger people as well,” Prof. Ebeling said.

A bone is broken every 3.2 minutes in Australia, and we have 1.2 million people living with osteoporosis. Understanding risk factors for poor bone health can prevent many fractures. Undiagnosed osteoporosis can severely impair mobility, so it is important to assess bone health as early as possible.

“What we want to avoid is people getting to their 70s or 80s, and then having a hip fracture and the vast majority of them can no longer live independently at home, and they might end up in a hostel or a nursing home or they might even die,” said Prof. Ebeling.

“We can actually treat it. It’s never too late to treat osteoporosis. It doesn’t matter how old you are.

“The medications we have can reverse it and increase bone density. Some of them can even form new bone.”

Prof. Ebeling says weight-bearing exercise is one of the best ways to restore bone density.

“It’s never too late to build up bone density with exercise,” he said.

“Playing tennis, dancing, stair-climbing, skipping or hopping are good for your bones – but not walking, cycling or swimming because they’re not weight bearing.”

Taking the test is important because osteoporosis can be a ‘silent’ disease. You may never notice symptoms. It typically doesn’t come with pain or other symptoms. Even some fractures can be painless; vertebral fractures can happen over time with little discomfort.

Myths about osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a normal ageing condition
We lose some bone density as we age. However, it is not true that every older person develops osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a disease that only affects older Caucasian women
While osteoporosis is more common in women due to lighter bones and sharp decreases in oestrogen levels after menopause, it can affect people of all ages, ethnicities and either sex. In fact, one out of five people with the disease is a man. Additionally, young people can be affected due to certain medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or malabsorption, or if taking certain medications that could lead to bone loss, such as glucocorticoids.

If you drink milk and exercise, you are not at risk of developing osteoporosis
All of us need to take steps throughout our lives to build and maintain strong bones, which include getting enough calcium and vitamin D and exercising regularly. However, there are certain factors that put people at increased risk for developing osteoporosis. These include: a family history of osteoporosis or broken bones; personal history of fracture as an adult; being small and thin; smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

Breaking a bone is not serious
One in two women and one in four men older than 50 will experience an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime. Fractures can affect physical, mental and emotional states and can also result in death. Approximately 24 per cent of people experiencing a hip fracture die within the year following their hip fracture.

My mother has osteoporosis, so I’m bound to get it too
Osteoporosis is preventable! Having a family member with osteoporosis does put you at higher risk, but do not think of it as an inevitable part of your future. Start today to improve your health through diet and exercise. You then have a fighting chance of breaking that piece of your family history.

I’ll know when I have osteoporosis, then I’ll be able to do something about it
People with osteoporosis are often symptom free for many years. That is why it is called the ‘silent killer’. In many cases, it is not until something serious happens, like a broken hip or spine, that the problem is discovered. If your bones become so fragile that they break, the damage is quite advanced. You may not know it until it’s too late.

I’m too old to do anything about osteoporosis
Not true! While starting early to prevent the onset of osteoporosis is important, there are ways to treat the disease as well. There are a variety of medications available that can help strengthen bones and increase their density. In addition, using supplements and starting an exercise program, even if you are older, can help prevent any further damage from the disease.

Taking calcium supplements is just as good as eating foods with calcium
Experts recommend you first try to get calcium from food. Good sources of calcium include low-fat milk, cheese, yoghurt, sardines and eggs. You can also take a calcium supplement along with vitamin D (D helps your body absorb the calcium). Try to estimate how much calcium you get in your diet and then fill in the rest with a supplement.

If you have osteoporosis, it’s too late to protect your bones from fractures
Weight-bearing exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of fracture by strengthening bones and improving balance. You can further slow bone loss with medications, such as bisphosphonates and calcitonin. Some medications have shown up to a 68 per cent reduction in hip fractures in women taking them. Hormone therapy can also slow the rate of bone loss, and even allow your body to rebuild bone.

Broken bones are the only danger
Osteoporosis is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. Osteoporosis leads to hip fractures and, around 25 per cent of people die within the first six to 12 months after a hip fracture. Why? Hip replacement surgery can lead to problems like arrhythmias, anaesthesia complications, pneumonia, heart attacks and infections in older adults.

Bones only break during falls
Most people fracture bones during a fall, but sometimes, weak bones simply break. If you have osteoporosis, you can get a stress fracture in your foot simply from walking.

You can feel your bones get weaker
Unfortunately, you can’t really see or feel oncoming osteoporosis. You may not know you have it until you’ve broken a bone. You don’t feel your bones get weaker as you lose bone density, nor do you really start to suffer any specific adverse lifestyle consequences. There’s no way to tell if you have it other than to get a bone density test.

Porous bones can’t get stronger
It is possible to rebuild bone. Osteoporosis medications can increase bone density by a few per cent per year over three to four years.

Sources: spineuniverse.com; endocrineweb; healthline.com; Cleveland Clinic.

The Cleveland Clinic sums up why a tool like Know Your Bones is valuable: “The bottom line: don’t ignore osteoporosis. The more you know about it, the more you can work to prevent it or treat it if you’ve been diagnosed”.

Do you know if you are at risk of osteoporosis? Have you participated in the Know Your Bones program? Were you aware that there is much you can do if you are at risk of osteoporosis?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Will Brodie

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