Your bones are built to last a lifetime, but hormones, drugs, and other risks can threaten their strength. These facts about your bones will help you keep them strong.
Your bones are alive and need your attention.
Strong, healthy bones are made during childhood, but keeping your bones healthy is a lifelong job. They are very much alive and continue to grow throughout your life.
Bones are made up of minerals like calcium and phosphorus, proteins like collagen, and also living cells. Although bones don’t get larger after a certain point, old bone is constantly breaking down and being replaced with new. Because of this, what you eat and drink — and even the drugs you take — can affect your bones’ strength and resilience.
You can protect your bones by guarding against certain risk factors for osteoporosis — weak and brittle bones that can easily fracture.
10 things your doctor may have neglected to mention about your bones:
Drinking too much is bad for your bones
Lifestyle choices like exercising regularly, not smoking, and yes, even moderating your alcohol use are all important for bone health. Too much alcohol keeps you from getting the nutrients strong bones need. In men and in women, abusing alcohol leads to bone weakness and a greater risk of breaking bones. Drinking also contributes to bone fractures from falls, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Estrogen is key to bone density
More women than men have osteoporosis, and after menopause, the risk rises as estrogen levels go down. At that stage, a woman’s bone density can drop by as much as 20 percent over about five years, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. “Estrogen keeps the bone cells that chew up old bone in check,” explains Lani Simpson, DC, Certified Clinical Bone Densitometrist in Berkeley, Calif., and author of Dr. Lani’s No-Nonsense Bone Health Guide. “When women do not have a menstrual cycle or are not producing enough estrogen, the net result can be bone loss.” After reaching the age of about 65, men lose bone mass too and are also at risk for osteoporosis.
A man is twice as likely as a woman to die after a hip fracture
About 258,000 people over age 65 break their hips each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even among men age 50 and over, about one in five will break a bone due to osteoporosis. In fact, men claim one out of every three broken hips worldwide. Both health and quality of life can plummet after a hip fracture. Thirty-seven percent of men die within a year after they break a hip — twice as many as women found a 2014 study published by the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
You need more than calcium for healthy bones
As an adult, you need about 1,000 milligrams/day of calcium to keep your bones in good shape, and 1,200 mg/day if you’re a woman between 51 and 70 years old. But calcium isn’t enough. In addition, daily magnesium, protein, and vitamin D are essential. “Vitamin D increases calcium absorption by 50 percent,” says Dr. Simpson. You’ll need 600 International Units (IU) of vitamin D each day as an adult. If you’re over the age of 70, you’ll need, even more, 800 IU per day.
Your body makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun. Fish, liver, and fortified milk are all good sources of both protein and vitamin D, but you may need supplements to get your daily dose. Beware, says Simpson, that “a diet that is high in sugar and processed carbohydrates is not good for bones,” because it can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb much-needed calcium.
Your insurance might not pay for your DXA bone scan
After hitting 65, women need a diagnostic bone scan, called DXA, to evaluate their bone health, recommends the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Unfortunately, weak, low-density bones usually cause no symptoms until a bone breaks. You may need a baseline DXA scan much earlier if you have risk factors like osteoporosis in the family. This type of bone scan uses low levels of radiation — 10 times less than a chest X-ray — and is the best way to catch osteoporosis early.
After the first scan, women should have one every two years. For men, the benefits of DXA are uncertain, notes the USPSTF. Be sure to check first to see if your insurance company will cover the DXA scan, especially if you are a man or you’re under 65 but have osteoporosis risk factors. If your DXA scan detects low bone density that points to osteoporosis, it’s treatable through lifestyle steps (diet and exercise) and protective medications like bisphosphonates.
Treating your GERD could weaken your bones
Bone loss can result from using large amounts of antacids that contain aluminum, which can deplete your calcium store; this includes products like Alamag, Maalox, or Mylanta. Even the commonly used drugs that treat heartburn — Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid — may lead to bone loss, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Healthy digestion is critical for bone health
Digestive health conditions increase your risk of having weak bones. These include inflammatory bowel disease, lactose intolerance, and anorexia nervosa, according to the National Institute of Health Osteoporosis Resource Center. If you have chronic loose stools (bowel movements), this could mean “you are not absorbing the vitamins and minerals your bones need,” Simpson notes.
Phenobarbital, a commonly prescribed barbiturate, can lead to bone loss
Used to treat seizures in people with epilepsy, phenobarbital also treats anxiety and insomnia. The drug is sometimes habit-forming and misused. Dilantin, another antiseizure medication, is also linked to bone loss. Weigh the risks and benefits of these drugs with your doctor, knowing that side effects increase over time and as doses go up.
Steroids can weaken your bones
Taking steroid medications like cortisone, prednisone, or dexamethasone can cause debilitating bone loss over time, notes the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). You may have taken steroid meds — also called glucocorticoids or corticosteroids — to treat rheumatoid arthritis, asthma or allergies, lupus, Crohn’s disease, or cancer, or after an organ transplant. Take the lowest dose you can for the shortest time possible, recommends the NOF, and talk with your doctor about strategies to keep your bones as healthy as possible while on steroid therapy.
Your blood cells are made in your bone marrow
Red blood cells don’t last long in your bloodstream so they need to be replaced continuously by new cells, which originate in your bone marrow. This area in the center of the bone is a spongy tissue that churns out billions of new, mature blood cells each day to keep you supplied with the oxygen and energy you need.