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Tips for Preventing Osteoporosis 

Maybe you've seen the commercials for drugs designed to treat low bone mass. Perhaps your physician has discussed testing for bone health or has even suggested vitamins to support it. All of these conversations are a response to the increased likelihood of osteoporosis in the senior years.

How common is the condition in older adults? According to the CDC, 12.6% of adults age 50 and over have osteoporosis, with women more commonly affected than men. In 2010, more than 10 million adults in this age group had osteoporosis, with 43.3 million having low bone mass.

Here's what you should know about osteoporosis and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing it.

What is osteoporosis?

The CDC defines osteoporosis as "the most common bone disease" and one that is characterized by "the weakening of bone tissue, structure, and strength." Low bone mass can increase the chances of getting osteoporosis, and if not treated, the disease can lead to fractures from falls and even everyday activities.

The disease weakens the bones, especially in the wrist, hips, spine, and forearms, to the point where they may break during a fall but also when you’re bumped, pressed, or jostled. A cough, for example, could cause a break in someone with osteoporosis. Shortened and compressed spines are also common, which leads to pain and a shortening of the body over time.

A major break, such as one in the femur or hip, can lead to a long period of healing, if the healing happens at all. Breaks are a common cause of mobility loss, lack of independence, and eventual transition to a long-term care environment. Osteoporosis should be taken seriously and prevented, if possible.

How to prevent osteoporosis

Osteoporosis can seem scary, because the consequences may be truly life-changing. Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to prevent the disease. The earlier you incorporate these health measures into your lifestyle, the better your odds of having healthy bones for your entire life.

1. Exercise

According to Harvard Health, weight-bearing activities (those that force your body to work against gravity) are a good way to build up bone strength. Common exercises to prevent osteoporosis include walking, dancing, and going up and downstairs. While higher-impact exercises do more for bone health, you may only be able to do lower-impact activities—and they’re perfectly appropriate, too.

How does resistance training prevent osteoporosis? These exercises use your body’s own resistance against gravity to grow stronger. Examples include weight machines, resistance bands, and lifting your own body (push-ups). You could also incorporate small weights and kettlebells.

Balance and flexibility activities help, too, such as tai chi and yoga. They can keep your muscles from becoming tight and short while improving joint mobility.

If you're already diagnosed with osteoporosis, avoid activities that cause you to twist or bend your spine, such as sit-ups or golfing.

2. Eat well

The food you eat plays an important role in maintaining your bone health. Some of the common ingredients in an osteoporosis prevention diet include the following.

  • Calcium: Minimum of 1,200 mg a day. These foods include dairy products, canned sardines, and dark/leafy veggies such as kale and broccoli. You can also consume “calcium added” foods, such as orange juice or fortified cereal grains.
  • Magnesium: Minimum of 310 mg a day. Foods with magnesium include dairy products, legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, and leafy greens. Some fortified cereals contain it, too.
  • Vitamin D: Minimum of 15 – 20 mcg (600 – 800 IU) a day. Foods with vitamin D include fortified cereals as well as most fortified milk, soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk. Fatty fishes, like trout, tuna, and salmon, are loaded with it, as well as fish liver oils. You can find small amounts of this vitamin in egg yolks, some cheeses, and mushrooms.

Can you take supplements? Before you do, it's always best to ask your doctor. Most adults get enough vitamins and minerals from their diet, especially if you eat fortified, nutritious items that contain many of the ingredients above. If you suspect you need to do more to meet this dietary goal, talk to your doctor about potentially taking a multivitamin or single-ingredient supplement.

You may also want to limit alcohol use and quit smoking, because these activities can increase the risk of bone loss.

3. Reduce your fall risk

While falls themselves don't cause osteoporosis, they can lead to lasting pain, limited mobility, and lifestyle issues that make it harder to prevent the disease. Falls also contribute to more deaths among the elderly, so it's worth doing everything you can to decrease fall hazards in your home and living space.

Here’s what you can do to prevent falls:

  • Use a cane or walker, if needed, especially in bad weather
  • Wear comfortable, properly fitting shoes with non-slip bottoms
  • Avoid slippery surfaces, like freshly-polished floors or wet floors when possible
  • Carry personal items in a hands-free bag or purse
  • Watch for curbs or uneven sidewalks
  • Keep your house clean and remove clutter from the floors
  • Remove any loose carpeting or area rugs that can cause you to trip. Consider gluing or tacking them down to prevent slipping
  • Use proper lighting in the hallways, along stairs, and anywhere else where you should take extra care when walking
  • Update your eyeglasses prescription and have your eyes checked regularly
  • Use safety or assistive devices when they make sense, such as when bathing, and consider non-slip mats in the tub

4. Share concerns with your healthcare professional

Osteoporosis may be more common in older adults, but it isn’t inevitable. There are some risk factors that can increase your chances, and you should discuss these risks with your physician or care provider.

Family history is one such risk factor. If a close relative has osteoporosis, you could be at an increased risk. Be sure to include this in the family history section of your medical records, and bring it up at any appointments for preventative care or direct concerns about bone health.

While there are pharmaceutical options for those with osteoporosis, you may be more inclined to learn how to prevent it naturally. Your healthcare provider can give you ideas for a better overall healthy lifestyle that supports bone health, too. Be sure to ask questions about the different medications available, how they may interact with your current meds, and any side effects. Also, ask if the recommended medications are long-term or temporary measures in the fight against bone loss.

If you aren't already testing for bone health, ask your physician to do so. Screening is recommended for women 65 years old and up, and for some younger women with increased risk factors (family history, for example). Low-level x-rays, called DXA, can show your bone density and if you are at risk for future problems. You can also use a risk assessment tool and use the results to start a dialogue with your healthcare provider.

Bottom line

There are many ways to prevent osteoporosis, but it will take daily lifestyle commitments to get the best outcomes. If you have doubts or questions, don't leave them to chance. Ask your doctor about your risk factors and what you can do to improve your outlook. It's never too late to make these positive changes for bone health.

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