Originally created 01/11/00

Early detection important to osteoporosis treatment



Q: How can I prevent osteoporosis? -- P.E., Martinez

A: According to medical researchers at the University of Texas, more than 25 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis. Women experience osteoporosis more than men, and it can result from a number of factors.

Osteoporosis is an abnormal thinning of the body's bones. This loss of bone mass (or strength) can lead to more-frequent and slower-healing fractures. The risk for complicated fractures seems to increase with age. People with insufficient calcium in their diets are most susceptible.

This condition can also be caused by such factors as cancer, low estrogen levels, inactivity, smoking, family history, vitamin deficiencies, or even alcoholism.

Although the links are not entirely clear, those with fair skin and a small body frame are generally at a higher risk for developing the disease.

Osteoporosis is often characterized by back pain, fractures or a deformed spine, known as the "dowager's hump" -- which leads to a loss of height. For those who suffer from osteoporosis, a doctor may prescribe calcium supplements, regular exercise, or estrogen.

Though osteoporosis is not yet fully understood, the best preventative measures include beginning a moderate exercise program, getting enough calcium each day and taking precautions against falls.

Activities such as walking and running help build strong bones.

The medications alendronate and nasal calcitonin have proven effective in restoring normal bone mass.

In order to determine whether a person suffers from osteoporosis, Postgraduate Medicine recommends that doctors order a biopsy of the bone. This test involves the removal of a small portion of bone to determine if there is an imbalance in bone mass.

Although many people suffer from osteoporosis, many more underestimate their own risks for developing this condition. According to pollsters for Prevention magazine, 86 percent of women age 50 and older "did not think that it was likely that they will develop osteoporosis."

The key to prevention is awareness and early detection. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends bone-density testing for all women older than 65, and for those younger than 65 who have significant risk factors for osteoporosis.

If you have a question or would like more information, write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.