When we think of osteoporosis, many of us might be forgiven for assuming it is generally something that doesn’t affect us until we’re older.
This condition, where the normal process of bone renewal goes off balance and the rate of bone loss is greater than the rate of bone production so as a result, bones become fragile and break more easily.
A broken bone can really affect your life. It can cause tremendous pain and disability, make it harder to walk or even do regular daily tasks on your own, and because the unfortunate truth is that women are more susceptible to this condition than men, it’s so important for us to know the facts.
Women of all ages need to take steps to help keep their bones strong and there are many factors that contribute to osteoporosis, including, race, diet, lifestyle and hereditary factors. And although it does tend to be more common in older people, people of all ages can develop osteoporosis.
Females have a greater risk partly because they live longer and have smaller bones than men, but also because as women reach the menopause, their levels of oestrogen decrease which leads to an increase in bone reabsorption and a decrease in bone production. The loss of oestrogen speeds up bone turnover so bone tissue worn away isn’t adequately replaced and bones lose their strength.
Research has shown that one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 in the UK will break a bone, mainly as a result of poor bone health.
But as there are generally no signs or warning signs, it’s often not until a minor fall or sudden impact causes a bone fracture, that gives the first indication of potential osteoporosis.
It is a condition associated with older people but are younger people likely to get it too? In both men and women, age-related bone loss begins around the age of 40 and continues throughout life, but in women, about 35% of compact bone and 50 per cent of spongy bone in the skeleton are lost during a lifetime.
For this reason, osteoporosis is more common in older people, but younger people can be affected by it as well.
My colleague Rachel Flint was first diagnosed with osteoporosis in 2012, after falling downstairs and breaking her hand. “I’d never broken a bone before - but they sent me for a bone density scan, as I had been on steroid treatments for Ulcerative Colitis - a chronic bowel condition - almost constantly for the past 14 years,” she says. “When I got the results back I was shocked. I had always believed it was an ‘older person’s condition’ and I suddenly had this illness which I had always associated with hip replacements at the age of 24.”
“Osteoporosis was something I’d always associated with people with zimmer frames, not young women under 30.”
Now Rachel takes a medication called Alendronic Acid, which is meant to help thicken her bones, and also a calcium supplement and in five years will have to undergo a density scan to check for any improvements. “I’m less worried about how it affects my life now, but how it will affect me in the future,” she says. “I’m sure there are other young people who simply don’t realise they have osteoporosis. I’m shocked I have developed this condition at such a young age, and worry about how it will affect my bones as I get older. But I hope it’s been discovered soon enough to stop the condition before it has any major implications. I’d like to find out more about it, and meet other young sufferers.”
Sheila Wigley, 67, from Guilden Sutton was diagnosed with osteopenia following a fall, which resulted in a broken wrist. This meant her bone density, a measurement of how dense and strong your bones are, was lower than normal but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis.
Having osteopenia means there is a greater risk that, as time passes, you may develop osteoporosis, so she was called back for a routine scan three years later, at which point she was then diagnosed with osteoporosis.
“I think there’s a general lack of awareness of the disease, and the fracture risks associated with it,” says Sheila. “I was aware having osteopenia could lead to developing osteoporosis and following my diagnosis I was prescribed medication to manage it, but it would have been useful to have had some information on how it would affect my lifestyle, or how I should deal with these changes.”
Sheila is now a member of the National Osteoporosis Society, and she says the support she’s had as a member has been invaluable.
“I’ve learnt a lot about the disease through attending group meetings and one of their conferences. I think anyone who has been diagnosed should be introduced to the society, it’s been a real lifeline for me.”
Although 80% of our bone health is inherited, there are still a number of measures that can be taken to influence the remaining 20% of the bone health that’s left in our own hands. These include eating a healthy diet, doing regular weight bearing exercise, reducing alcohol consumption and giving up smoking.
To learn more about Osteoporosis, and causes and treatment, visit the NHS website http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Osteoporosis/Pages/Introduction.aspx