Maybe your grandmother had a dowager’s hump — the hunched upper back that some women develop as they age. Or she broke a hip. Or your mother or your aunt did.
While you may be aware of osteoporosis in your family members, you might never have considered that you could be at risk, too. But in the U.S., women account for about 80% of the 10 million cases of osteoporosis. Even if you’re otherwise healthy, just being female increases your risk for dangerous amounts of bone loss.
Behnam Khaleghi, MD, an expert rheumatologist and founder of Pacific Rheumatology Medical Center in Orange and Laguna Hills, California, treats osteoporosis and helps you prevent it, too. If you’re female, here’s what you need to know about your bones no matter what your age or how healthy you are.
Smaller, lighter bones increase your risk
If you’re small boned or short, your risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis increases. Even larger women’s bones are smaller and lighter than most men’s, which is one of the reasons why you’re more likely to develop significant amounts of bone loss over time. When your bones aren’t dense to begin with, losing even small amounts of minerals and mass make them more susceptible to breakage.
Many women don’t even know they have osteoporosis until they fracture a bone after a minor fall or accident. Women are even more likely to lose bone mass if they’re:
- A smoker
- A heavy drinker
You’re also at increased risk if you have:
- Diabetes or another health condition
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Thyroid problems
When you have two or more of these risk factors, we might recommend getting your first dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan at age 35, rather than waiting until age 50. A DXA scan determines how dense your bones are and how much density you’ve lost over time compared with healthy bones.
Hormonal changes affect your bones
When you go through perimenopause and menopause, your levels of the hormone estrogen fluctuate and ultimately drop. Estrogen protects your bones from mineral loss, particularly from losing calcium. Without estrogen, your bones lose density at an accelerated rate.
Many women lose 25% of their bone mass during the first 10 years of menopause. If you’re not on bioidentical hormone replacement (BHRT), or another hormone balancing therapy, Dr. Khaleghi may recommend medications and supplements to help you keep your bones strong.
Even the hormonal changes of pregnancy and nursing can temporarily rob your bones of calcium. Your growing baby needs calcium to make its own bones, which is why you should take a calcium supplement during gestation and breastfeeding. However, being pregnant and nursing doesn’t raise your risk for osteoporosis, as your bones tend to normalize once you stop breastfeeding.
Living longer raises your risk
Women live about five years longer than men do, but adding years also subtracts calcium from your bones. You lose about 2% to 3% of your bone mass every year after menopause. Complications of osteoporosis in older women include:
- Hunched back (dowager’s hump)
- Hip fracture
- Decreased height
- Spine fracture
- Wrist fracture
Fractures can be painful and debilitating. If you break a hip when you’re elderly, you’re three times more likely to die within the next year than women and men who haven’t broken a hip.
Lifestyle measures prevent more bone loss
While no medical treatment can restore your bones to their youthful density, you can take steps to increase your bone health and prevent the loss of more bone. Dr. Khaleghi recommends lifestyle changes now to preserve your bone health for the future:
- Eat calcium-rich foods, such as leafy greens and sardines
- Do weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, running, and weight lifting
- Take calcium and Vitamin D supplements
- Quit smoking
- Reduce or stop alcohol consumption
- Increase general activity level
Dr. Khaleghi also recommends getting a DXA scan every two years to track your bone density. If you’re at risk for fracture, he may recommend medications, including injectable ReclastⓇ.
To find out more about osteoporosis and how to keep your bones strong for life, call us today or book an appointment online.