“Osteo” comes from the Greek term “osteon” which means bone, and “porosis” refers to thinning or becoming porous. Hence the term “osteoporosis” describes the progressive thinning and weakening of the bones which comprise the framework of our body structure. This debilitating bone disease is responsible for more deaths in women than breast and uterine cancer combined. Yet it is not a disease restricted to women: one in two women and one in three men over the age of 60 are affected to some extent.
Often referred to as “the silent disease”, the condition can progress unchecked for decades until a chance X-ray or a bone fracture heralds its presence. Risk factors include increasing age, low body weight (women under 140lbs/64 kg are more susceptible), being of Caucasian origin, onset of early menopause (<40 years of age), or surgical sterilization (prompting a rapid decrease in estrogen and progesterone).
Osteoporosis occurs when calcium is leached out of the delicate internal bone structure, which resembles honeycomb in appearance. Over time, and with continued demineralization, the holes of the “honeycomb” enlarge and the walls become thinner. Hairline fractures and breakages occur as a result of the breakdown of the bone structure. Often, fractures of the femur (thigh), radius (wrist), and vertebrae can occur spontaneously due to osteoporosis without involving an injury or fall. Many elderly people will break a hip and subsequently fall, rather than fall and break a hip.
Yet osteoporosis is a disease, not an inevitable fact of middle and old age. Bone mass reaches a peak around the age of 20 and is termed Peak Bone Mass. It is this property that determines both a person’s propensity for developing osteoporosis in later life and the rate at which thinning of the bones will occur. It is important during childhood and adolescence to build Peak Bone Mass to optimum levels, as the greater the strength of the bones in early life, the more resilient they are to the natural aging processes of decreasing bone density.
As we age, the body undergoes certain gradual changes, such as a slight reduction in bone density. This process, called osteopenia, is normal and does not lead to bone fracture. By roughly 35, both males and females begin to lose calcium at the rate of around 1% per year. During the menopausal years, this rate increases rapidly for women, which explains why females are more prone to the effects of osteoporosis than males. Again it is the Peak Bone Mass achieved in early adulthood that will determine whether the rate of bone deterioration is of a normal level or one that will ultimately result in osteoporitic symptoms. The higher the basal Peak Bone Mass, the greater the amount of bone mass which can be lost before the fracture threshold is reached.
Fortunately, bone is a living entity, and diet and exercise play a vital role in both the prevention of and retardation of the rate of bone deterioration. Osteoporosis is not an inevitable fact of life, and with small but significant changes to lifestyle, it can be avoided.