Boning up on your bones

By Ruth Joseph, June 10, 2010
A healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of suffering from brittle bone disease later in life

A healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of suffering from brittle bone disease later in life

We are constantly being told how important it is to look after our hearts but perhaps we should be paying a little more attention to our bones as well. According to National Osteoporosis Society statistics, one in two women and one in five men over 50 in the UK break a bone, mainly due to poor bone health. Osteoporosis costs the country £2.3 billion per year. The so-called "silent epidemic" has no obvious symptoms and often the sufferer is unaware they have the disease until too late. The results can be excruciatingly painful and sometimes even fatal.

So how to avoid this insidious disease? Its later stages are characterised by a curved spine, pronounced stoop and a constant fracture risk. If a family member already suffers from the disease, or a fracture occurs following a seemingly innocuous incident, it is advisable to ask your GP for a bone density test - a DXA scan - which measures the level of calcium and other essential minerals within sections of bones. It is a simple, non-invasive test which gives a reasonably accurate summary of bone health.

A major problem for Ashkenazi Jews is lactose intolerance. If you are avoiding dairy products, then switch to rice, soya, almond or oat milk, yoghurt and cheese products, ensuring that they are well fortified with Vitamin D and calcium, as it is the fortification which contains the valuable nutrients.

The chances of having osteoporosis are greater with naturally thin or small-boned people and those who take cortisone-related medication over a long period. In fact people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, lupus, asthma, and thyroid deficiencies are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis because of their long-term treatment, while those taking antidepressants in the SSRI class might also be affected.

Osteoporosis is more likely to affect women who have had an early menopause as normal oestrogen levels are a requirement for maintaining bone health. So in old age, women with hormone loss have more chance of suffering from the disease.

Olive oil, vegetables and fruits can improve bone density

If an eating disorder is or has been a problem, particularly in teenage girls when maximal bone mass accrual occurs, then osteoporosis is a higher risk. Those who suffer from irregular periods or from polycystic ovary disease should talk to their doctor.

There is also bad news for smokers.At present, scientists cannot explain why smoking damages bones but statistics prove that smoking affects bone health - recent studies show a direct relationship between tobacco use and decreased bone density. Not only that but fractures will take longer to heal if you are a smoker.

However, when a smoker quits, sometimes the problem can be reversed to a certain extent although this may take some years.

Drinkers who enjoy a small amount of alcohol a day are in no danger. But more than two alcoholic units per day endanger bone health. Alcohol is known to weaken bone structure, leaching magnesium, calcium and other bone-builders and again it is women who are more likely to suffer than men, probably because they are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

It is sensible to avoid foods known to damage bones and increase consumption foods that improve bone health. The old devil salt, which is present in alarmingly high levels in junk food, is known to draw calcium from bones. Carbonated drinks often contain phosphoric acid which increases excretion of calcium. So try a pure fruit juice with a dash of fizzy water.

And how to eat for bone health? Increase your intake of calcium-rich foods, fortified alternatives to dairy foods and ensure that you get some sunlight or vitamin D supplement.

Enjoy a Mediterranean diet. Scientists at Granada University have discovered that olive oil helps to prevent cell ageing and bone loss. New research on antioxidants shows olive oil plus masses of fruits and green vegetables can improve bone density. Extra protein intake can help older people increase bone porosity.

Finally the biggest help of all is to continue exercising. As one German doctor said, "move it or lose it". Try any load-bearing exercise such as walking or dancing. Even carrying heavy shopping can make your wrists healthy and Tai-Chi gives improved balance and is hugely recommended.

Last updated: 10:35am, June 10 2010