Osteoporosis, a condition that can cause bones to become weak and brittle, can sometimes go undetected because there are generally no visible symptoms of low bone density. Without any tell-tale signs, bones gradually deteriorate without your knowledge. Brittle bones are not only a danger if you fall or have an accident—with bones in a weakened condition, mild stresses such as bending over or coughing can cause a fracture.
If you or your doctor is concerned about your bone density, they may recommend something called a bone density test that will determine if you have osteoporosis. Based on the results of your screening, you can develop a treatment plan along with your healthcare provider. For more information about bone density screenings—and if you should have one—read below.
Bone density is the amount of bone mineral found within bones that gives them their strength. Loss of this mineral building block makes bones brittle and susceptible to fractures. Bone density is highest in young adults. Around the age of 40, bone density begins to be lost in small amounts. A person in their 40s can expect to lose 1% of their bone density each year. This is due to a number of factors, including:
A bone density test is a simple, painless screening that uses a bed-type scanner to x-ray the bones. The exposure to the x-ray on a full body bone scan is safe and far less than that of other types of x-rays. Women are four times more likely than men to suffer from osteoporosis. However millions of men in the US still suffer from osteoporosis too, Hip fractures are one of the most serious injuries associated with the disease, with over half of people with a hip injury never regaining their full mobility.
Most young, healthy people do not need a bone density test. However, bone density test procedures are recommended for people in certain risk groups for osteoporosis. These include:
Bone density is measured by what’s known as a T-score. This score uses the baseline score of a healthy 30 year-old. Your bone density is compared to this ideal score.
The lower the T-score, the lower your bone density. A score -1.0 or above signals normal bone density, while a T score between -1.0 to -2.5 means you have low bone density. A T score of -2.5 or below is a sign of osteoporosis.
Osteopenia and osteoporosis are not reversible, though they can be slowed down with the right medication and lifestyle changes.
It’s relatively easy to get the calcium and supporting nutrients that help bones stay strong and dense. Even if your bone density test came back low, adding in foods that support bone health can give your body what it needs to stop further damage.
Here are some foods that can help:
Exercising with free weights, resistance bands, or weight machines not only builds muscle, it also strengthens bones at the same time. That’s because these exercises put a controlled amount of stress on bones. This signals the body that your bones are active and new bone cells should be made. It’s a use-it or lose-it strategy that works just as well for weight-bearing aerobic exercise like jogging or cardio-heavy dance workouts.
It’s a common strategy for good health—eat your veggies. Thankfully, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to make a positive impact on your bones. Not all veggies are equal bone-builders however. Improve bone density by adding more dark green vegetables to your diet. These include Chinese cabbage, kale, and collard greens. Sweet potato is also a versatile veggie that can be included in multiple meals throughout the week. Not only does the spud contain calcium for bone density, but it also adds magnesium and potassium to your diet. Both of these nutrients help maintain calcium levels and prevent further bone loss.
It’s important to note that some veggies diminish calcium absorption. Although they’re packed with nutrients, foods with oxalates, like spinach, rhubarb, and beet greens won’t contribute much to your daily calcium intake.
Most multivitamins on the market contain the daily recommended value of calcium for the day. There’s also specific supplements just for calcium intake. But you don’t need to just rely on supplements. Many foods are also fortified with calcium. For instance, plant-based milks and orange juice both have added calcium.
Most people know calcium is good for bone density, but it’s easy to overlook the role both vitamin D and K play in the process. Vitamin K helps build stronger bones by being a binding link between calcium and other minerals important to bone strength. Vitamin D helps promote strong bones by binding calcium and other minerals together, which helps aid bone density.
While obesity can be a risk factor for bone density loss, underweight individuals are also at risk, particularly those with an eating disorder. There may even be a correlation between an unhealthy low body mass index in younger years and an increased risk for osteoporosis later in life.
Calorie-restrictive diets that encourage dieters to go below the recommended calorie intake can cause an increase in bone marrow fat. This fat diplaces bone marrow, making bones less dense and weaker. Adding rigorous exercise onto a low calorie diet also negatively impacts bone density.
Protein is a key element to bone health. Most people think of meat and cheese when looking to add protein but there’s other options. Tofu is not only a good source of protein, it’s also rich in calcium. Aim for 40-60 grams of protein a day.
Omega-3s help boost the calcium levels in your bones. Since these fatty acids provide multiple benefits, from fighting arthritis and inflammation to helping prevent cancer, they’re worth adding to your diet. Cold-water fatty fish like salmon, flaxseed, soybean oil and eggs all offer abundant amounts of omega-3s.
While you can help strengthen your bones through diet and exercise, a bone density screening is the only way to know if you have or are at risk for osteoporosis. You and your doctor can use the results of this screening to determine a treatment plan that involves treating your bone density levels. Through diet, exercise, and mediation, you can prevent breakage and protect your bones. Talk to your healthcare provider about your need for a screening today.