By: Christopher Gaffney, Ph.D.

Understanding Bone Loss

Our body strives to maintain balance – this is an important principle in how we function.
Most people don’t know that we are continually losing bone (or to be more accurate – bone is broken down and re-absorbed) AND building bone at the same time. In fact, we have specific cells that handle each of these tasks. This is a process called “remodeling.” In order for new bone to be constructed well – the body has to collect and use certain vitamins (such as Calcium and Vitamin-D) and minerals from your diet to ensure it has all of the building blocks it needs. When our bodies are working perfectly – the balance between the breaking down bone and building new bone is in perfect harmony. However, as we age – this balance is harder to maintain. An imbalance in this system results in not having the support that you need to function at your best. As such, the body breaks down more bone than it should and doesn’t build new bone well (or fast enough) to keep up with the demand needed.

Osteoporosis: Screening for Bone Loss
Bone Density Testing

Like many things in life – prevention is usually the best strategy.

As we age, one of the keys to ensuring continued health and vitality is to decrease the likelihood of fractures resulting from insufficient bone structure.

To assess the integrity and structure of our bones – a quick, painless, and safe test was developed. The DEXA scan (which stands for Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry) specifically looks at the places in the body where fractures are more likely. For more than 30 years, DEXA has been the gold standard for osteoporosis screening (as well as assessing the effectiveness of various treatment options and diet) for patients throughout the world.

The primary goal of testing (and treatment) is to prevent fractures as we age. Fracture prevention is very important – as research has shown that, as we age, recovery from these types of injuries takes longer and is far more difficult and can also result in many different problems (such as infections).

Who should be tested?

According to the American College of Rheumatology – research shows that all postmenopausal women over age 65 should be screened for osteoporosis. Additionally, patients with one or more of the following risk factors should be considered for screening and treatment (if needed):

  • Men or Women who have been taking hormone therapy or steroid medications
  • Women with a previous history of fracture(s)

Preventing Osteoporosis: Avoiding Bone Loss

Certain factors can actually speed up bone loss or decrease bone growth. For example, alcohol, cigarettes, and even certain medicines reduce bone mass. As well, some foods can make it hard for your body to absorb calcium.

Things to keep in mind / avoid when possible:

Here are some quick points to keep in mind that might help to prevent osteoporosis. Remember – balance is the key to success – and even small changes can result in dramatic effects over time.

  • Alcohol: Everyone has heard that a glass of red wine might be helpful for the heart. And while that might be true – alcohol is actually toxic to bones and can be a cause for bone loss. Heavy drinking can cause osteoporosis even in otherwise healthy people.
  • Smoking. Yup, smoking reduces bone mass. Additionally, smoking may also interfere with hormones (like estrogen) and can lead to early menopause.
  • Inactivity. Not being active makes your bones lose strength and become thinner. Over time, as you might expect, thin bones can break far easier. Men & Women who aren’t active are at a high risk for osteoporosis.
  • Certain Medicines: Some treatments (such as steroids like prednisone), increase bone loss – especially when taken for long periods of time. They also decrease bone growth.
  • Protein-rich (i.e., lots of meat) or salty foods. While they may taste great – when eaten in large amounts – these foods deplete calcium (an essential building block for healthy bones).
  • Caffeine decreases calcium. Research has shown that people who drink a lot of coffee, tea, or soda lose more calcium than those who don’t.

Osteoporosis Treatment Options

Your rheumatologist will begin their evaluation by discussing your lifestyle, diet, and other medical conditions (if any). With this information in hand, they can work with you to tailor a treatment approach to ensure that you have all of the best tools available to help tackle osteoporosis.