May is National Osteoporosis Month, a time to think about preventing an often-overlooked disease that causes bone to become more fragile and more susceptible to fractures. Each year, Americans suffer 1.5 million fractures due to osteoporosis.
Jamaica Plain resident Dr. Sarah Berry, Associate Director at the Musculoskeletal Research Center and Associate Scientist at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research in Roslindale, is at the forefront of osteoporosis research. She shared information on osteoporosis and offered prevention tips.
Q: What is something that might surprise the public about osteoporosis?
Dr. Berry: It’s a silent disease. Typically, people don’t realize they have weak bones until they have a fracture. Because of that, it’s better to focus on preventing it, rather than waiting to find out you have it.
Q: When should people get screened for osteoporosis?
Dr. Berry: Women should get screened beginning at age 65, and men beginning at age 70. However, if a woman goes through early menopause or if any adult has had an earlier fracture, they should get screened earlier.
Q: What type of screening should I get?
Dr. Berry: A common screening is a bone density test, which is similar to an X-ray (but with less radiation than a chest X-ray). It measures how tough your bones are. Another option is to use the FRAX model, an online tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) that assesses your risk of osteoporosis over a 10-year period based on your age, weight, family health history, and other factors.
Q: What should I do if I am at high risk for osteoporosis?
Dr. Berry: Speak with your doctor about the right course of treatment. Exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise like walking and dancing, is particularly helpful. Tai Chi is very beneficial. A study conducted by the Marcus Institute found that after nine months, people who practiced Tai Chi had increased bone mineral density and lower incidence of falls. Prescription medications can slow the rate of bone loss and some can help increase bone mass.
Q: What are the common misperceptions about osteoporosis?
Dr. Berry: Most people don’t realize that it can be deadly because of complications that can set off a chain of events, such as infections, blood clots, and loss of mobility. Pain medications can affect cognition and cause confusion. Twenty percent of people with hip fractures die within a year, while another 20 percent end up needing long-term care.
Q: What’s an unexpected risk factor for falls?
Dr. Berry: Prescription medication is one of the most common risk factors for falls because of side effects. Speak with your doctor to make sure you still need to take all of your medicines, and ask about the lowest dose you can take that still works.
Q: Can people grow bone?
Dr. Berry: Your skeleton turns over every 10 years. After age 30, the rate of bone loss outpaces the rate of bone growth. This bone loss also increases in women after menopause. However, it is possible to rebuild bone and increase bone strength.
Q: What should we do every day to strengthen our bones and prevent osteoporosis?
Dr. Berry: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of exercise in strengthening bones and preventing falls. Talk to your doctor to see if you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D or if you need to be taking supplements or other medicines. It is best to try to get these minerals and vitamins through your diet.
It's important to lay the foundation for strong bones now, no matter your age. By incorporating good healthy habits, you can create a healthier future, Dr. Berry advised.
You can find more information about preventing osteoporosis at the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), as well as the latest research on osteoporosis and bone health at the Musculoskeletal Research Center at the Marcus Institute.
Jamaica Plain resident Dr. Sarah Berry, Associate Director at the Musculoskeletal Research Center and Associate Scientist at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research. Her research includes the STEP-HI study, which evaluates testosterone and exercise after hip fractures. She also studies injurious falls in nursing homes.