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Osteoporosis is the weakening of bone that can occur as you get older. As bones become thinner, there is a greater risk that they will break with falls or minor injury. Medical complications of these injuries can have significant consequences, including longer stays at the hospital, disability, and even death.

Osteoporosis is most common in postmenopausal women, particularly white and Asian women, but it can occur in women of any race. Osteoporosis can also occur in men.

How does it occur?
Osteoporosis occurs more often as women grow older. After menopause women produce much less of the sex hormone estrogen. Estrogen helps women's bones stay strong by preventing bone loss. Low levels of estrogen can cause a weakening of the bones.

Women who smoke or are physically inactive are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis as they grow older. Other risk factors for osteoporosis include slender build, inactivity, and increasing age. Too little calcium in the diet and a family history of osteoporosis are other risk factors to consider.

In addition to aging, other causes contribute to osteoporosis:

  • Surgical removal of both ovaries, which reduces estrogen levels
  • Intense exercise such as marathon running, which reduces estrogen levels
  • Long periods of bed rest during serious illness
  • Use of medications called steroids

What are the symptoms? Women may have no symptoms until a bone breaks. Broken bones are a common way people learn they have osteoporosis. Hip, spine, or wrist fractures can indicate the presence of osteoporosis.

The bones of the spine are also a common area of thinning. Often, over time, the bones of the spine, known as vertebrae, collapse on themselves one at a time—causing loss of height, back pain, and a stooping posture.

How is it diagnosed?
A healthcare provider may discover that a woman has osteoporosis by doing a special type of test called a bone mineral density test. A decision to perform a bone mineral density test may be based on an assessment of an individual's risk. This assessment may include a review of medical history and symptoms, a physical exam, other X-rays, and certain blood tests. A bone mineral density test can be performed at a variety of sites including hip, forearm, spine, and heel. The available technology for performing a bone mineral density (BMD) includes a low-dose X-ray called a DEXA and an ultrasound. Results are reported as T scores.

How long will the effects last?
The risk of a broken bone resulting from osteoporosis increases with age. Once menopause begins, most women, especially Caucasian and Asian women, need to take precautions for the rest of their lives to prevent osteoporosis.

How can I take care of myself?
Follow the treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition you can:

  • Eat healthy foods, especially low-fat milk and other dairy products, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, sardines, and shellfish.
  • Take a daily calcium supplement if your diet doesn't meet recommended daily requirements of calcium.
  • Do weight-bearing physical activity, such as walking, regularly. Be sure to develop a balanced exercise program that includes your body exercise also. Exercise programs should adhere to recommendations and restrictions from your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if a BMD test is right for you.
  • What can you do to reduce your risk of falls?

You can reduce the risk of falls and broken bones:

  • Avoid lifting objects that are too heavy.
  • Build your activity level gradually.
  • Wear low-heeled shoes with non-slippery soles for walking and suitable shoes for sports and recreation. Avoid shoes with soles that catch on carpeted surfaces.
  • Use support, such as a cane, for walking if you need it.
  • Maintain a safe, well-lit, and uncluttered home.
  • Avoid throw rugs on your floors.
  • Avoid icy, wet, or slippery surfaces, especially in the bathroom. Use nonskid mats in the shower and bathtub.