Osteoporosis is a common disease in Australia with some 1.2 million people estimated to have the disease and further 6.3 million affected with low bone density. Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, causing a loss of bone thickness. This makes bones more brittle and so increases the risks of fractures.
Osteoporosis affects about 3 per cent of people aged 35-64, with the numbers affected increasing steeply in those aged 65-79, and again in those aged 80 or over. Osteoporosis affects one in two women and one in three men.
It is sometimes called the “silent disease” because people usually do not notice their bones becoming thinner and weaker until they break and as the disease progresses, even a slight bump or fall can cause a serious fracture.
Any bone can be affected by osteoporosis, but the most common sites are the hip, spine and wrist.
Women are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis because of the rapid decline in oestrogen levels during menopause. When oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate with the result that a bone loss of approximately 2 per cent per year occurs for several years after menopause.
Men also lose bone density as they age but testosterone levels in men decline more gradually so their bone mass generally remains adequate until they are older.
Calcium is a key to minimising the risk of osteoporosis. Calcium helps to build our bones and maintain bone strength. Almost all of the calcium in our body is in our bones, with just a little dissolved in blood and other fluids to assist with healthy functioning of the heart, muscles and nerves.
Osteoporosis Australia says our bones act like a calcium bank, storing calcium and releasing it into the bloodstream when needed. If our calcium intake is too low then osteoporosis, or brittle bones, can result.
The recommended daily intake of calcium is about 1000mg for young adults, and for teenagers and older adults about 1300mg a day is recommended. This equates to three to five serves of dairy foods each day. However, calcium absorption is reduced (and, the risk of osteoporosis increased) by the lack of vitamin D as well as excessive intake of caffeine, alcohol, and many soft drinks.
If you are unable to get an adequate calcium intake from your diet, or if you can’t manufacture sufficient vitamin D from exposure to the sun, calcium and vitamin D supplements – both of which are evidence-based complementary medicines – may be required.
Your community pharmacist can advise on tips to increase calcium intake and improve vitamin D levels, appropriate supplements if you need them, check the medicines you are taking and recommend what type of exercise would be best for you.