Many people, as they get older, find their bones losing mass and density, a condition called osteoporosis. It’s a natural consequence of aging: bone naturally loses mass with use, and after about age 25, new bone is created slower than old bone breaks down. If you didn’t develop a large surplus before that, your bones will eventually be delicate and fragile, and highly prone to fractures. Another common symptom is back pain and poor posture, due to a weakened spine.
As with many conditions, early detection is key. A test recently developed in England, based on ideas from researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, measures bone density and fragility directly, rather than through imaging. Risk of fracture goes up before loss of mass may be visible, and a severe fracture is often the first indicator of osteoporosis, by which time a significant amount of damage has already occurred.
Experts think one-third of women over 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis; this test will help doctors better predict which patients are likely to suffer these fractures. Called microindentation, it’s not only more accurate and thorough than imaging, it requires only a small handheld device rather than complicated equipment, and can be done in the office as opposed to a separate dedicated facility. In addition, imaging can determine density but not quality, which is also relevant to fracture risk.
This early detection allows treatment—to slow or stop the loss of bone mass—to be given before fractures become a serious likelihood. The best-known treatments are drugs called bisphosphonates that halt bone loss. In severe cases, or if the bisphosphonates are not well tolerated, drugs that stimulate bone growth may be used to restore the lost mass, though this is not normally necessary.
Vitamin D and calcium, due to their roles in bone development, are often suggested as ways to treat osteoporosis. Studies have shown, however, that vitamin D on its own has almost no effect; it needs to interact with calcium in order to preserve and rebuild bone in earnest. Preventing osteoporosis also means quitting smoking and drinking in moderation if at all; nicotine and alcohol both accelerate the degradation of bone tissue. Also exercise can strengthen bones as well as muscle.