Bone loss is a normal part of aging, but some people experience decreases in bone density faster than normal. This leads to the development of a disease called osteoporosis and is associated with an increased risk of bone fractures in older adults. In the United States, more than eight million women and just under two million men have been diagnosed with osteoporosis. It is called a "silent disease," since those suffering from the disease often remain symptom-free until an event like a fall or fracture occurs.
For decades, bisphosphonates have been the main treatment for osteoporosis which have been very successful. The class of drugs works by slowing down the way in which the body eliminates damaged bone tissue. Popular since the 1990s, doctors are now beginning to see the downside of long-term treatment.
Scientists at Imperial College London who examined the bone makeup of hip-fracture patients who were previously treated with bisphosphonates, found evidence that drugs were actually making the bones weaker. The medications are now being linked to microscopic cracks that make bones fragile and more prone to breaking.
While the results are surprising and alarming, more research is needed. No changes in prescriptions are recommended in the immediate term. Researchers say patients should continue to take their medications as prescribed and discuss any concerns to their treating physician.
How to Naturally Support Bone Health
Fortunately, there are many ways in which we can improve our bone density and decrease our risks for osteoporosis.
Healthcare providers recommend adults need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. However, a recent study found that people who get all, or most, of their calcium from supplements —instead of food, are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack.
So, if you should not use supplements, how do you get your daily allowance of calcium?
Low-fat dairy is a good source of calcium and other nutrients which are needed for bone strength. Typically, 1,000 mg of calcium can be found in about three cups of dairy per day. Surprisingly, another source rich in calcium is vegetables like the dark leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, kale and Swiss chard.
Consuming the recommended amount of calcium each day is not the end of the story. You also need other nutrients like phosphorous. Vitamin D is essential, as well. It helps your body to absorb the calcium and carry it into the bone.
Resistance and weight-bearing exercises are important for preventing bone loss and improving bone density. Aerobic exercise is also recommended for adults starting from their late teens until they are in their sixties. However, if you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, be sure to check with your physician before you begin any exercise routine.
For women in their fifties, who are found to be at high risk of fractures, may reduce their risk for osteoporosis by taking hormone replacement, but treatment should be limited to five to ten years at most. Bisphosphonates remain important for protecting for fractures. However, they should be restricted to five years and then periodically reassessed to ensure the benefits continue to outweigh the risks.