Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones to the point where they break easily—most often, bones in the hip, backbone (spine), and wrist. Osteoporosis is called a “silent disease” because you may not notice any changes until a bone breaks. All the while, though, your bones had been losing strength for many years.
Bone is living tissue. To keep bones strong, your body breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone tissue. Sometime around age 30, bone mass stops increasing, and the goal for bone health is to keep as much bone as possible for as long as you can. As people enter their 40s and 50s, more bone may be broken down than is replaced.
A close look at the inside of bone shows something like a honeycomb. When you have osteoporosis, the spaces in this honeycomb grow larger, and the bone that forms the honeycomb gets smaller. The outer shell of your bones also gets thinner. All of this makes your bones weaker.
Who Has Osteoporosis? Risk Factors and Causes
Although osteoporosis can strike at any age, it is most common among older people, especially older women. Men also have this disease. White and Asian women are most likely to have osteoporosis. Other women at great risk include those who:
- Have a family history of broken bones or osteoporosis
- Have broken a bone after age 50
- Had surgery to remove their ovaries before their periods stopped
- Had early menopause
- Have not gotten enough calcium and/or vitamin D throughout their lives
- Had extended bed rest or were physically inactive
- Smoke (smokers may absorb less calcium from their diets)
- Take certain medications, including medicines for arthritis and asthma and some cancer drugs
- Used certain medicines for a long time
- Have a small body frame
The risk of osteoporosis grows as you get older. At the time of menopause, women may lose bone quickly for several years. After that, the loss slows down but continues. In men, the loss of bone mass is slower. But, by age 65 or 70, men and women are losing bone at the same rate.
What Is Osteopenia?
Whether your doctor calls it osteopenia or low bone mass, consider it a warning. Bone loss has started, but you can still take action to keep your bones strong and maybe prevent osteoporosis later in life. That way you will be less likely to break a wrist, hip, or vertebrae (bone in your spine) when you are older.
Can My Bones Be Tested?
For some people, the first sign of osteoporosis is to realize they are getting shorter or to break a bone easily. Don’t wait until that happens to see if you have osteoporosis. You can have a bone density test to find out how strong your bones are.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women aged 65 and older be screened (tested) for osteoporosis, as well as women under age 65 who are at increased risk for an osteoporosis-related fracture.
A bone mineral density test compares your bone density to the bones of an average healthy young adult. The test result, known as a T-score, tells you how strong your bones are, whether you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, and your risk for having a fracture.
How Can I Keep My Bones Strong? Preventing Osteoporosis
There are things you should do at any age to prevent weakened bones. Eating foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D is important. So is regular weight-bearing exercise, such as weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing.
If you have osteoporosis, avoid activities that involve twisting your spine or bending forward from the waist, such as conventional sit-ups, toe touches, or swinging a golf club. Learn how to exercise safety with Go4Life, the exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging.
Those are the best ways to keep your bones strong and healthy. Learn more about keeping your bones strong to prevent falls.
What Can I Do for My Osteoporosis?
Treating osteoporosis means stopping the bone loss and rebuilding bone to prevent breaks. Healthy lifestyle choices such as proper diet, exercise, and medications can help prevent further bone loss and reduce the risk of fractures.
But, lifestyle changes may not be enough if you have lost a lot of bone density. There are also several medicines to think about. Some will slow your bone loss, and others can help rebuild bone. Talk with your doctor to see if medicines might work to treat your osteoporosis.
In addition, you'll want to learn how to fall-proof your home and change your lifestyle to avoid fracturing fragile bones.
Can I Avoid Falling?
When your bones are weak, a simple fall can cause a broken bone. This can mean a trip to the hospital and maybe surgery. It might also mean being laid up for a long time, especially in the case of a hip fracture. So, it is important to prevent falls. Learn how to prevent falls.
Do Men Have Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is not just a woman’s disease. Not as many men have it as women do, maybe because most men start with more bone density. As they age, men lose bone density more slowly than women. But, men need to be aware of osteoporosis.
Experts don’t know as much about this disease in men as they do in women. However, many of the things that put men at risk are the same as those for women, including family history, not enough calcium or vitamin D, and too little exercise. Low levels of testosterone, too much alcohol, taking certain drugs, and smoking are other risk factors.
Older men who break a bone easily or are at risk for osteoporosis should talk with their doctors about testing and treatment.
For more information about osteoporosis, visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
For More Information on Osteoporosis
This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.
Content reviewed: June 26, 2017