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This Month In Health
  • How Dense Are You?
    When you reach the age of 30, new growth tapers off and you actually begin to lose bone density. Low bone mineral density increases your risk for osteoporosis, so you’ll want to slow its progression or prevent it altogether. Here's how. Read >>
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Health and Fitness News

How Dense Are You?

The causes, symptoms, and treatment for osteopenia.

When you’re young, your bones are constantly growing. But when you reach the age of 30, new growth tapers off and you actually begin to lose bone density. Around age 50, many people begin to develop osteopenia, a condition of low bone mineral density (BMD).

While the name sounds similar to osteoporosis, it’s not quite the same.

Osteoporosis is a disease marked by more extreme bone loss that puts you at risk for fractures, pain, a hunched posture, and even loss of height. Osteopenia means your BMD falls somewhere between healthy bone density and osteoporosis.

However, low BMD means you're more likely to develop osteoporosis, so you’ll want to slow its progression or prevent it altogether. What causes osteopenia and how do you know you have it? Keep reading to find out.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Bone loss may be due to genetic, lifestyle, or health factors. Since women generally have lower bone mass than men, women are at a greater risk for osteopenia. Hormonal changes and lower estrogen levels at menopause may contribute to low bone density.

Certain medical conditions also contribute to a lack of bone density. Common culprits include eating disorders, hyperthyroidism, and untreated celiac disease. Additionally, chemotherapy drugs, radiation, and certain medications can cause bones to lose density.

Unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices are another cause. Skipping exercise, smoking, a lack of vitamin D and calcium in your diet, and drinking alcohol or carbonated beverages all increase your risk of the condition.

Signs of Osteopenia

Unfortunately, there are no clear symptoms of osteopenia. So there is no way to know if you’re suffering the condition unless you undergo a bone mineral density test, commonly referred to as a DEXA scan. All the test entails is a simple, painless X-ray to estimate the mineral content of your bones.

Normal bone density has a T-score of 1.0 to -1.0. To be diagnosed with osteopenia, your T-score will range from -1.0 to -2.5. A T-score of less than -2.5 is diagnosed as osteoporosis. The lower your score, the greater your risk of fractures.

Talk with your doctor if you meet the criteria to have the test. If your density score is low, have the test redone every three to five years. This allows you to keep an eye on your bone density and take action as needed.

How Is It Treated and Prevented?

To keep osteopenia from progressing to osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend certain treatment measures. What’s used to treat the condition is also what can help prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Unless your T-score is especially low, your first line of treatment will be diet and exercise changes. If your T-score is near -2.5, your doctor may also prescribe medication to strengthen your bones.

Increasing the amount of calcium and vitamin D in your diet is key to healthy bones. Great sources of calcium include dairy products, dried beans, salmon, spinach, and broccoli. Vitamin D is readily found in eggs, fatty fish, fortified foods, and sunlight. A lack of either may mean you may need to take supplements.

Food isn’t the only way to bulk up your bones. Weight-bearing exercises, strength training, and balance exercises are other forms of treatment. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.

At the same time you’re starting new good habits, you’ll need to stop bad ones. Quit smoking and cut back on the amount of alcohol and carbonated beverages you consume. These small steps are hard to take, but your bones will thank you.

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