Osteoporosis

What is it?

Translating to ‘porous bones,’ osteoporosis is a condition characterised by a loss of bone mass and strength. This leads to brittle, frail bones and a higher risk of fractures1. More than one million people in Australia have osteoporosis, but it is often undiagnosed until it is severe enough for a fracture to occur.

Osteoporotic fractures often happen from something as simple as tripping and falling from standing height2, and the most common fracture sites are the hip, pelvis, wrist and forearm2. These fractures can cause complications and set off a cascade of health issues, such as pain, mobility issues, and disability, which can impact independence and quality of life2.

How do we get it?

Bone strength is determined during our early years, when our body stores calcium to build strong bones. By our early 20s, we reach  ‘peak bone mass,’ which is when our bones are at their strongest. Maximising peak bone mass is essential in reducing the risk of osteoporosis later on in life, so it’s key for children and adolescents to eat enough calcium-rich foods, get a healthy dose of vitamin D and get regular physical activity – which are all key to building strong bones.

After reaching peak bone mass in the early 20s, bone loss may start at a slow rate in the mid 30s3. The hormone oestrogen is protective against bone losses, so following menopause, women will lose bone strength at a greater rate – around 2-4 percent each year.

For males, drops in the hormone testosterone levels in their 50s also cause as acceleration of the rate of bone loss3. Osteopenia is the stage before osteoporosis where there is low bone mass4.  Osteoporosis develops when this loss continues and there is a risk of fracture4.

Risk Factors

Osteoporosis affects 3.4 per cent of Australians, and is most common in people over the age of 55 (84 per cent) and females (81.9 per cent)2.

Some risk factors we can’t change. They include: 2

  • Being female
  • Going through menopause
  • Increasing age
  • A family history
  • Certain conditions like Coeliac Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and medications used to treat conditions like asthma, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions.

Other risk factors we can control. They include:2;

  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Poor calcium intake
  • Significantly low body weight.

How to prevent it?

Preventing osteoporosis is important as there is no known cure.

Having enough calcium-rich foods is critical for all age groups – in children and adolescents to build strong bones, and in adults to slow down bone loss5.

Other ways to help ward of osteoporosis6, 2:

  • Physical activity, including weight bearing exercise (like walking or tennis) and resistance exercise (such as lifting weights)
  • Making sure you get enough calcium-rich food each day.
  • Making sure you get enough vitamin D, which helps the body to absorb calcium. Unlike other vitamins, our main source of vitamin D is from daily sun exposure. To see how much sunlight you need each day, take a look at this page from Osteoporosis Australia.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Avoid smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

How to treat it?

As there is no cure, the aim of osteoporosis treatment is to maximise bone strength, and minimise the risk of fractures.

Osteoporosis management may involve medication – and the same healthy lifestyle tips (mentioned above) are still important. Your doctor may also recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements1 and may suggest a falls prevention programs.

If you are between the ages of 40-90 years you may assess your risk of osteoporotic fracture by completing the Fracture Risk Assessment Tool, developed by the University of Sheffield.

This page was developed by Tegan Flynn, student dietitian.