Osteoporosis:  The Silent Disease

Osteoporosis is often called the "silent disease" because it is symptomless.  People may not even realize they have osteoporosis until it has advanced to the point where their bones are so weak that a sudden strain, bump, or fall causes a hip to fracture or a vertebra to collapse.  The estimated cost of osteoporosis and related fractures is now approximately 14 billion dollars annually.

There are 24 million Americans, 80% of whom are women, who are at risk for osteoporosis—10 million already have the disease and 14 million have low bone mass placing them at increased risk for developing osteoporosis.


What Is Osteoporosis?

“Osteoporosis is a condition in which the infrastructure of the bone becomes thin and weakened,” said Casey Lauf, PT, physical therapist with Atrio Home Care.  Once weakened, the bone is at higher risk for fracture even from minimal stresses, like a bump or a fall, which would have little or no effect on strong, healthy bone.    

Bones continue to build mass from birth, with peak growth occurring between the ages of twenty and thirty.  Actual bone mass loss begins as early as age thirty.


Who Gets Osteoporosis?

The chances of developing osteoporosis increase with age.  In the United States, approximately one in four women over the age of fifty has osteoporosis.  .   “The elderly are most at risk for osteoporosis,” said Lauf.   “Approximately 70% of women aged eighty or older are afflicted with the disease.    You see the disease less often in men because of their larger skeleton,” said Lauf, “although men can and do develop osteoporosis. By the age of 65 or 70, they are losing bone mass at the same rate as women.” 

Risk factors for the disease include age, gender, genetics—if other members of your family have osteoporosis, you are more likely to get it—a small frame, various diseases or conditions like hyperparathyroidism and certain medications.  Inadequate diet, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and lack of exercise can all increase bone loss and up your chances of developing osteoporosis.


What Do Bones Need?

  • Bones depend on calcium, other chemicals and certain vitamins to keep them strong.
  • Bones grow in response to physical stress (exercise) put on them.
  • Adequate bone density requires a good diet, some sunlight (for vitamin D) and exercise.

Plan of Action

Ask your doctor about a DEXA test—a test that is similar to an x-ray but without the radiation—to measure your bone density.  To prevent osteoporosis, discuss your diet with your doctor or a dietician to be sure you are getting adequate calcium and that your diet is well balanced.  “A physical therapist can assess your activity level and prescribe an exercise program that can safely strengthen your bones,” said Lauf.

If you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, talk to your physician about possible medications to slow or stop bone loss or to increase bone density and reduce your risk for fractures. 

“A physical therapist can design an exercise program that will help strengthen your bones and the increased strength will also help you maintain balance and prevent falls,” said Lauf.  “If you do have osteoporosis, it would be wise to check your home for possible fall hazards like throw rugs and loose cords.   Keep pathways well-lit and clear of furniture and use non-slip mats in the bathtub.”