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You can take steps now to keep your bones healthy.

Your bones are seriously strong — four times stronger than concrete, in fact. And even if they break, they have the amazing ability to heal themselves within a matter of weeks.

But your bones change over time. 

While it's easy to recover after breaking an arm when you were 10, it’s more difficult to heal a broken hip when you’re 80. 

That’s because our bones weaken as we get older. And they become especially brittle if you have osteoporosis.

“Thousands of Americans break or fracture a bone every year because of osteoporosis,” said Daniel Scott Horwitz, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in orthopaedic trauma. “While this may not sound like a big deal, for older people, these injuries can be life-threatening. If you’re at risk for osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about whether you should get tested.”

Osteoporosis is a common condition — about 10 million Americans over the age of 50 have it. Even more common is low bone density, which puts you at risk of developing osteoporosis. 

“Osteoporosis is a condition that causes microscopic holes in your bones and lowers bone density,” said Dr. Horwitz. “This makes your bones weaker and more susceptible to breaks and fractures. Osteoporosis is common among older people — especially women.”

What causes osteoporosis?

One of the most well-known causes of osteoporosis is a lack of calcium and vitamin D in your diet. But there are other reasons, too. 

Hormonal imbalances, such as low estrogen and low testosterone levels, may lead to a loss of bone density. Changes in hormones are what put post-menopausal women at risk for osteoporosis. 

Because of the toxins in cigarette smoke, smoking is another culprit. The substances in tobacco smoke kill bone cells — and that makes you more susceptible to osteoporosis.

Treatment for osteoporosis

Here’s the good news: Medications, supplements and diet and lifestyle changes all work as treatment for osteoporosis. The earlier it's diagnosed, the better your outlook.

If you have osteoporosis, your doctor will likely prescribe long-term medications called bisphosphonates and supplements such as vitamin D and calcium. After five years, your doctor will check whether you need to continue treatment. 

Your doctor will also likely recommend an exercise routine. Exercise can help keep your bones and muscles strong, which can reduce the risk of future fractures.

If you’ve been through menopause, talk to your doctor

Because menopause causes a sharp drop in estrogen levels, post-menopausal women have the highest risk of osteoporosis. 

“Osteoporosis is a silent disease and usually has no symptoms until you break a bone,” said Dr. Horwitz. “That’s why it’s important to have your bone density tested by a doctor, especially after menopause.” 

During a bone density scan, doctors use X-rays to identify osteoporosis. If they find signs of osteoporosis, they will likely begin treatment to reduce the risk of fracture and complications.  

Bone density scans are necessary for women over 65, but your doctor may recommend them to men and younger women, depending on their risk factors.  

Preventing osteoporosis

It’s a good idea to get in the habit of protecting your bones before you turn 65. Luckily, there are many things you can do to keep your skeleton stronger than ever.

You need calcium, a mineral found in your bones, to maintain bone health. Vitamin D is crucial for helping you absorb calcium.

Eating for strength

The amount of calcium and vitamin D you need depends on your age and other factors. For example, a woman who is between the ages of 19 and 50 and pregnant or nursing needs more vitamin D than one who is not pregnant or nursing.

Most people need about 1,000 mg of calcium daily. Older women need 1,200 mg daily. Most people need 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day.

It’s common knowledge that dairy, like milk, cheese, yogurt and other products, contain the calcium needed to keep bones strong.

But there are other calcium-rich foods for those who can’t tolerate dairy or follow a dairy-free diet. Some include:

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Broccoli
  • Tofu and edamame
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds
  • Whey protein
  • Fortified drinks, like almond milk and orange juice
  • Dried figs

Our bodies create vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight, without sunscreen. But there are many reasons — including the risk of skin cancer — why this may not be the best option. Do your research and figure out what kind of vitamin D supplement is right for you if you’re worried about your levels.

Body building – literally 

Exercise is a must for strong and healthy bones — especially weight-bearing movement. Lifting weights promotes healthy bone growth in youngsters, and it preserves bone strength in older adults.

But you don’t need to go to the gym to get a good workout. Use your own body weight through exercises like:

  • Push-ups
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Planks
  • Pull-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Burpees

You can find some tutorials here.

What to avoid

There are foods and lifestyle activities that can negatively affect your bones. Some of those include:

  • Being under or overweight
  • Smoking
  • Eating foods high in sodium (including processed and canned foods)
  • Drinking too much soda and/or alcohol
  • Excessive caffeine consumption
  • Eating too much red meat

Next steps:

Low-impact workouts to try at home
Sprains, strains and fractures: How to tell them apart
Meet Daniel Scott Horwitz, MD

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