If You're Not Worried About Osteoporosis, Should You Be?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • You might think, browsing through this site, that all of its readers are actively battling osteoporosis. Not so. Many of you are simply older women whose age and sex put them into the prime risk group for thinning bones. Some are researching the disease for a friend or parent. And some of you younger readers know you’re at risk due to the drugs you take (aromatase inhibitors for cancer; steroids for rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, or inflammatory bowel disease).

    The fact is, many of you reading this don’t have osteoporosis. You may not even have osteopenia. Yet. But speaking of facts, data shows that about 20% to 30% of Caucasian women in this country will be affected by osteoporosis after age 60. And Native American, Hispanic, and Asian women are at even higher risk. So for every 10 of you reading this, three will have to deal with the fear, the drugs, and the possible debilitating fractures of osteoporosis.    

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    What made me consider all of this? Last Friday, I sat with two friends late into the evening, enjoying champagne (the election still fresh in our minds), a lovely Brie, some Irish cheddar, and fresh-baked bread. We’ve worked together (and played together) for years; our nearly adult children are all within 4 years of one another, so we’ve faced the same challenges, often at the same time. (“Chris finally graduated from college!” “No, really? You must be overjoyed! I think Matt is going to drop out…”). We’re comfortable with one another as only old friends can be.

    Sarah is forging a second career as a nurse, and has lately been studying anatomy and physiology. Somehow, the conversation turned to osteoporosis. “Oh, I’ve learned all about that. Calcitonen, TSH suppression…”

    “Yeah,” I chimed in. “I’m learning about it, too. I didn’t know it was so common for women our age to have bone density issues. I always thought it was for old ladies, you know, like the widow’s hump thing.”

    The three of us looked at one another. “Are we old?” we said in unison, laughing.

    We’re all under 60, but creeping closer. Sarah’s not only learning about osteoporosis via her nursing courses, but she has a family history of it, so she’s aware. Due to cancer drugs pushing my T-scores down, I’m aware of it, too. Sarah and I tossed bits of information back and forth; Susan was quiet. Thinking to include her in the conversation, I turned and asked her how much calcium she was taking.

    “Like a calcium supplement?” she asked.

    “Yeah. How many milligrams are you taking?”

    “None. I don’t take any supplements,” she answered.

    Surprised, I asked her about vitamin D. “Are you taking vitamin D?”

    She shook her head.

    “No vitamin D and no calcium?” Sarah was mildly shocked. As was I.

    “I have strong bones,” said Susan. “My mom has never had any problems with osteoporosis. She got tested, and her bones are as good as a young woman’s.”

    A year ago, I was living in Susan’s world: no fear of osteoporosis, convinced my bones were strong, no interest in calcium supplements or vitamin D. All of that has changed. I can now tell you how much calcium there is in a cup of cottage cheese vs. 4 ounces of cooked kale. I know my daily calcium goal is 1500mg, and I’m shooting for 1000mg daily of vitamin D—and that would be D3, not plain D. I can even spell cholecalciferol (barely). 

  • So I have to remind myself that osteoporosis creeps up silently, like breast cancer. But where breast cancer awareness is pounded into us via an entire pink month of October, osteoporosis awareness is basically nonexistent. When TV stars have breast cancer, we know about it; but when’s the last time there was a celebrity osteoporosis sighting (besides Sally Field)? Is there a colored ribbon for osteoporosis? Who knows?

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    The next time you find yourself relaxing on a Friday night with your girlfriends, ask how many of them know even a single risk factor for osteoporosis. Ask if they realize how common it is, once we get into our 60s.  And ask how many of them are sure they’re getting all the calcium and vitamin D (that would be D3) they need.

    I’m betting there’ll be a lot of blank faces.

    If you’ve read this far, you know that older women are at significant risk for osteoporosis. And you know that calcium and vitamin D3 are key elements for bone health. And that not having a family history isn’t enough; being female and older are the two major risk factors.

    Spread the word, OK?

Published On: November 12, 2008