by: Elizabeth A. McLarney, MD

McLarney Smile shot
Elizabeth A. McLarney, MD

Did you know that May is National Osteoporosis Month? It’s important to pay attention to the possibility of osteoporosis because, as a woman ages, she faces a far higher risk than her male counterparts of osteoporosis – a disease characterized by thinning bones and a high risk of fractures in the wrist, hip and spine.

Bones form the scaffolding for the human body. But unlike scaffolding, which is static and over time will rust and decay, our bones are in a constant state of turnover and repair, a process called remodeling. The remodeling process requires raw materials–calcium, vitamin D and exercise–to keep bones in good repair.

Adults reach peak bone mass in their 30s, followed by a slow decline. Women fare worse than men because they have smaller frames on average than men–with less bone to start with. When they hit menopause in their late 40s or early 50s the rate of bone loss accelerates for a few years, leaving many women vulnerable to fractures.

To some degree women are helped by having higher estrogen levels prior to menopause. And until recently many women have taken hormone replacement therapy to maintain bone density. Following negative findings about the increased risks of heart attack and stroke associated with HRT, most physicians are presently reluctant to prescribe it for most patients.

Other prescription drugs are available, however, that can help prevent bone loss and actually increase bone density. Biphosphanates, a class that includes Fosamax (alendronate) and Actonel (risedronate) have been shown to help prevent bone loss.

Just about every woman can presume that she needs to follow the basic guidelines of getting recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D  for her age plus plenty of weight bearing exercise to ensure adequate bone density.  But how does she know if she needs a bone-building drug as well?

A non-invasive test – bone densitometry (known as dual energy x-ray absorptiometry DEXA) is considered the gold standard for measuring bone density and the future risk of fractures. This test can be used to measure bone density at the wrist, hip and spine, all high risk areas for fractures.

The definition of osteoporosis is based on how much  bone mineral density varies from the average bone mineral density of a young adult. Expressed in T-scores, osteoporosis is diagnosed when the T-score is below -2.5. Scores of -1 to -2.5, indicate osteopenia, a less serious condition but an early warning that either lifestyle changes or medical interventions are necessary.

The advantage of having a bone density test is that it can provide an early warning of what is all too frequently a silent disease. For many women the first sign of osteoporosis is the broken wrist, hip or spine that comes with a fall. on the kitchen floor.

Fosamax or Actonel are frequently prescribed for women who have suffered broken bones because of osteoporosis or who have low DEXA scores.

A recent study found that too often patients quit worrying about getting adequate calcium and vitamin D when they start taking medication, assuming that the drug is taking care of the problem. Researchers found that bone building drugs were far more effective when women also consumed recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D.

Raloxifene, a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM), has some of the benefits of estrogen but without the risk of breast cancer associated with estrogen replacement. It also increases bone  mineral density and is prescribed for some women with osteoporosis. One negative side effect is that it can intensify hot flashes.

Calcitriol, sometimes prescribed for women who can’t tolerate biphosphonates,  has to be taken twice a day and requires monitoring of calcium levels.

While medications are effective,  women can do much to help themselves.

Lower your risk by getting regular weight-bearing exercise and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol consumption. You should also consume the equivalent of one and one-half pints of reduced fat or fat-free milk or milk products per day as well as calcium-rich foods such as dried beans, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and calcium-fortified orange juice. In order to use calcium effectively, the body needs vitamin D, which is most readily available through sunlight.

If you’re planning for good health in the second half of life, make sure you include your bones in the blueprint. They’re the frame that keeps your body strong and mobile. So be as attentive to your bones as you are to your skin. Keep feeding them the raw materials they need to renew and rebuild for a strong and active future.

Dr. McLarney is an orthopaedic surgeon in practice at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. An orthopaedic surgeon is a medical doctor with extensive training in the diagnosis and nonsurgical as well as surgical treatment of the musculoskeletal system including bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves.