Taking action now can help keep your skeleton strong and fracture-free later.
by Beverly Burmeier
Few people worry about skeletal health when they are young—but that’s prime time to prevent future problems. “Good bone health starts early. Your bones build density from infancy through young adulthood,” says Liselle Douyon, MD, an endocrinologist with the University of Michigan Health System. Skeletal mass peaks about age 30 and generally remains flat until age 50, after which bones start to break down.
About 44 million Americans have osteoporosis and low bone mass (osteopenia), which often go unnoticed until a break occurs. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, one in two women and one in four men over age 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture during their lifetime. A woman’s chances of breaking a hip is equivalent to her combined risk for breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. Although 80% of Americans with osteoporosis are women, men over the age of 50 have a greater risk of breaking a brittle bone than developing prostate cancer. Fractures in the vertebrae cause pain, difficulty walking, even trouble breathing and eating.
Getting older, having a small frame, being a Caucasian or Asian woman, or having a family history of osteoporosis all increase risk. While building bone mass early in life is the best defense against this silent disease, it’s never too late to build a stronger skeleton.
Osteoporosis experts suggest several ways to strengthen your bones. One is exercise; activities you do on your feet—walking, jogging, dancing, aerobics, tennis—are the best. “Bones, like muscles, were built to work. When we don’t do work, we’ve got a tough job of ensuring adequate bone strength,” says Robert Heaney, MD, professor of medicine at Creighton University.
Lifestyle moderations can also help protect your skeleton. If you smoke, stop; it can inhibit calcium absorption. If you drink, limit your daily consumption to no more than two drinks. (Alcohol abuse is a prominent risk factor for osteoporosis.) Talk to your physician if you use certain prescription medications that may weaken bones, including antacids, corticosteroids and other drugs.
Adjusting your diet is the best way to forestall osteoporosis. Recommended calcium intakes are 1,000 mg daily for adults 18 to 50 and 1,200 daily for those over 50, amounts that Heaney says are minimums. Besides dairy products, foods such as salmon and dark, leafy greens will help you meet your daily requirements. One green to steer clear of, though, is spinach, along with sweet potatoes and rhubarb. These otherwise healthy foods contain high amounts of oxalates, which reduce calcium absorption. In addition, high-fiber foods such as 100% wheat bran appear to reduce absorption of calcium in other foods eaten at the same time. Remember that soy and almond milks don’t supply the calcium found in cow’s milk. (Adding a tablespoon of nonfat powdered milk to foods gives you an extra 50 milligrams.)
Still, as Heaney puts it, “Meal planning should not be a chemical engineering exercise. Don’t overreact.” Supplements can help you get enough calcium, but this mineral by itself isn’t enough to build bone density. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium; it’s especially important for seniors, people living in northern climates and those with dark skins that don’t create vitamin D efficiently when exposed to sunshine. Vitamin K2 helps to create the proteins that incorporate calcium and other minerals into bone. Calcium itself is available in several forms, including an algae-based variety called AlgaeCal that is particularly absorbable.
Supplement timing is another key factor. Caffeine can inhibit calcium uptake, so it’s best to wait an hour or two after a cup of coffee before taking your supplement. Try orange juice instead, as vitamin C improves calcium absorption. For maximum effectiveness split the dose so you’re only taking 500 mg of calcium at a time.
No one wants to suffer osteoporotic fractures. Taking care of your bones now can help you stay active as the years go by.