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Five simple steps to boosting bone health

You say you can feel it in your bones when something bad is going to happen? Not always. A serious fracture often is the first symptom of osteoporosis.

"Osteoporosis is a silent disease, but we can't afford to be silent about it," says Leo Schargorodski, executive director, National Osteoporosis Foundation, Washington, D.C. An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, a deterioration of bone tissue. A surgeon general's report on bone health in 2004 warned that half of Americans over age 50 -- 14 million -- face a risk of fracture by 2020.

Another 20 million U.S. women (almost half of postmenopausal women) have weak bones but don't know it. "Women are aware of osteoporosis, but they don’t see it as a risk," Schargorodski says. Osteoporosis also affects about 2 million men. By age 65, men lose bone at the same rate as women. Male risk factors are low testosterone levels and prostate cancer.

Fractures start downward spiral
Human bones are constantly on the mend. Calcium is removed then absorbed into the blood, and new calcium deposits are made. This turnover helps repair minor damage.

Up until about age 30, calcium is deposited faster than it's removed. With age, small holes form in the calcium crystals. As they expand, the bones weaken. Wrist, hip, and vertebrae fractures are common.

Studies show that the fracture rate in women with low bone density is nearly double that of women with normal bones. More than 90% of hip fractures result from a fall. About 20% of seniors who suffer a hip fracture die within one year.

Early detection is vital. A quick, pain-free bone mineral density test is the only way to assess risk. Subsequent tests should be on the same machine.

  • Get weight-bearing exercise
    Exercise results in higher bone mass or density. Resistance training and weight-bearing aerobics like walking can boost density an average of one to three percent annually. Stair-climbing builds bone more than a treadmill. Balance training or yoga helps prevent falls.

Plan menus with calcium
Calcium is activated by exercise. Doctors suggest 1,500 mg of calcium daily after menopause. Two servings of dairy or soy milk per day total more than 1,000 mg. Fruit juices, leafy green vegetables, and broccoli have significant calcium.

Vitamin D unlocks calcium. A 2003 study revealed that women with high vitamin D levels absorbed 65% more calcium. Fortified milk and soy milk have vitamin D. So does sunlight (two to three days weekly for 10 minutes). Salt, soft drinks, caffeine, refined carbs, and animal protein deplete or reduce calcium.

Calcium citrate is a supplement that's absorbed by minimal stomach acid. Calcium carbonate is contained in antacids like Rolaids or Tums. It should be taken with food.

Avoid smoking, limit alcohol
Studies show that smoking weakens bones; even secondhand smoke can increase your risk. More than three ounces a day of alcohol may suppress bone formation.

Discuss risks with a doctor
Assess your risk and how to reduce it. Ask about diet and supplements.

Get a bone density test
Recent studies don't support drug therapy for women with a low score between -1 and -2.5. (Osteoporosis is -2.5 or lower.) Ask about side effects of any prescribed drugs.

You say you can feel it in your bones when something bad is going to happen? Not always. A serious fracture often is the first symptom of osteoporosis.

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