Our bones are more than the skeletal structure of our bodies. Bones protect vital organs, support muscles, and store the calcium that makes bones dense and strong. The more you can do to build and maintain bone mass, the lower your risk will be for developing osteoporosis (porous bone).
The first step to bone health is understanding how bone is made. Two types of bone cells are involved in the bone-building process: osteoclasts and osteoblasts. The osteoclasts trigger bone resorption, which means to lose substance. In other words, osteoclasts are the cells that break down existing bone to make way for new bone. After the osteoclasts do their work, the osteoblasts trigger the bone building that is necessary to replace the bone that has been resorbed.
A specialized bone density test called a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan is used to assess bone health. A DEXA scan measures bone density at the hip and spine, where fractures are most likely to occur. It can detect and assess how much bone you have lost, whether you have osteoporosis, and your risk of developing a fracture.
When you say "osteoporosis," most people know what you are talking about. But when you mention "osteopenia," it's common for someone to say, "What's that?" That's because osteopenia is a relatively new term used by doctors to describe bone density.
The term osteopenia was created shortly after the development of the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan. A DEXA scan is used to measure bone density at the hip and spine, where fractures are most likely to occur. It is now widely used to monitor bone health.
Women who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis are advised to take medication that can help them reduce bone loss. It would be easy to assume that women with osteopenia should be prescribed these medications as well. But that isn't the case. In fact, osteopenia does not need to be treated with any drugs at all.
Osteoporosis used to mean fractures caused by thin bones. About a decade ago, however, the definition changed. Now the term osteoporosis encompasses not only those who have had fractures caused by thin bones but those who have thin bones and are at increased risk for fracture. This change made the risk factor for the disease (thin bones) equivalent to the disease (osteoporosis) itself. It also meant that many more women suddenly had osteoporosis.
If you learn that you have osteoporosis and are at high risk for fracture, there are medications available that are very effective at reducing risk. Until recently, hormone therapy was widely recommended as a means to prevent osteoporosis. But the available alternatives to hormone therapy are equally effective at maintaining bone density and carry less risk. These include:
Start Protecting Your Bones Now
By protecting your bones now, you can reduce your risk for osteoporosis later in life. And if you do develop osteoporosis or osteopenia, these lifestyle changes can help you lower the rate at which you lose bone.