Here's another word to add to your midlife dictionary: osteoporosis. It's not just women who get the condition. Men do, too. It's often called a "silent disease" because you can't feel your bones getting weaker.
After age 40, there is a combination of factors that can account for diminishing bone mass: age itself, decreasing estrogen levels, inactivity and poor nutrition make it diminish at the rate of 1 percent each year. Additionally, it's not uncommon for many women to experience rapid bone loss during the five to seven years after menopause—we can lose up to 20 percent of our bone density during this time (after that, bone loss tends to slow).
As bones become more fragile, they're more likely to fracture or break—and it doesn't always take much. Sometimes even a minor fall or something as simple as bending over to tie your shoelace can result in a big problem.
Osteoporosis and low bone mass affect 54 million Americans and are responsible for 2 million broken bones each year in the United States. They cost patients and the health care system $19 billion annually. Those are hefty numbers—and they're climbing, with experts forecasting that by 2015, there will be 3 million fractures from osteoporosis and low bone mass, with health care costs climbing to about $25.3 billion.
Although regular weight-bearing activity can slow bone loss, even active people can suffer from low bone density. After a recent routine bone density test, I was shocked and dismayed to find out that mine is low, especially in one hip. I can only imagine it would be that much worse if I didn't exercise.
Can you prevent or improve osteoporosis?
To some degree, yes, if you:
1. Begin building strong bones during childhood and adolescence. About 85 percent to 90 percent of adult bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and 20 in boys.
2. Get the recommended amount of calcium and vitamin D (which helps your body absorb calcium) each day. The latest government recommendations for women between 51 and 70 are 1,200 milligrams per day of calcium and 600 UI (International Units) of vitamin D each day.
3. Nourish your body with (the right) foods. Your supplementation needs might vary if you eat the right foods. Vitamin D-rich foods include egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver and fortified milk. Some calcium-rich foods are yogurt, soybeans, tofu and salmon. Although the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 4,000 units per day of vitamin D for adults, doctors sometimes prescribe higher doses if you're deficient in the vitamin.
4. Avoid very high amounts of protein, salt (sodium) and caffeine. They may all contribute to bone loss. But don't forgo protein altogether—it's necessary for your bones, as well as your overall health.
5. Do regular weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises. Yes, strong muscles can lead to strong bones. There have been numerous studies showing that strength training can not only slow bone loss, but may even build stronger and denser bones, due to the tugging and pushing on the bone that occur when you perform the exercise. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise like walking or running count, too.
6. Don't smoke. Several research studies have found it a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fracture. The more cigarettes you smoke and the longer you smoke, the greater your risk of fracture.
7. Avoid excess alcohol consumption. Chronic use of alcohol, which interferes with the balance of calcium in the body, has been linked to increased fracture risk of the hip, spine and wrist.