Osteoporosis affects around three million people in the UK, with one in two women over the age of 50, and one in five men, suffering from fractures due to the bone-thinning condition. Experts warn younger women are now starting to be diagnosed – A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she suffers from osteopenia, a precursor to the disease – but there are steps you can take to build stronger bones, inside and out.
What is osteoporosis?
The word osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones’, where bones become riddled with tiny holes, lose their density and become fragile, leading to painful and sometimes fatal fractures, particularly of the wrist, hip and spine. With an ageing population, experts are predicting more cases of this ‘silent epidemic’, silent because there tends to be no obvious osteoporosis symptoms until you break a bone.
Our bones are made up of a thicker outer shell and an inner honeycomb mesh. Old bone is removed by cells called osteoclasts and replaced by bone-building cells called osteoblasts in a continual cycle. Osteoporosis occurs when this cycle is imbalanced and the honeycomb mesh becomes thin – a bit like a dodgy builder leaving out essential bits of scaffolding. The outer shell develops tiny holes and, overall, the bone becomes thinner and more liable to break.
What causes osteoporosis?
Some bone thinning is due to ageing. We build up a ‘bone bank’ during adolescence and by the age of 25 you’ll have around 98 per cent of your bone mass. It stabilises in your 30s and 40s, and then starts to decline. Women are particularly at risk because they have smaller bones than men, and also lose the bone-protecting effects of oestrogen after the menopause.
Some diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or an overactive parathyroid gland, which controls the amount of calcium in our blood, can increase our osteoporosis risk, as can conditions that affect the absorption of food, such as Crohn’s or coeliac disease.
Our genes are also though to affect our bone health, so the condition tends to run in families.
What can I do about osteoporosis?
The bone thinning condition osteoporosis can be fatal – people who fracture easily have a shorter lifespan, and those with hip fractures are much less likely to recover. But you can protect your bones from osteoporosis with the right foods.
Up your calcium intake – Calcium is the best-known nutrient for bones. The recommended daily intake for women is 800mg, or 1,200mg if you’re at risk of osteoporosis. Rich sources of calcium include milk, yoghurt, cheese, pulses, dark green leafy veg such as kale, and dried fruit. Some brands of tofu can also be high in calcium.
If you need to take a calcium supplement, choose one with calcium citrate, rather than calcium carbonate, for maximum absorption.
Oily fish, such as salmon, contains vitamin D, which your body needs to process calcium effectively. You can also absorb this vitamin via the action of sunlight on your skin, or take a vitamin D supplement.
Choose the right drinks – There is some research to show drinking too much caffeine could reduce your calcium levels. It’s thought the chemical causes calcium to be leached from bones and then excreted through urine
Fizzy drinks have a similar effect, possibly due to the phosphoric acid and caffeine used in some types of colas. Instead choose green tea. Research in Taiwan – where green as well as black tea is commonly drunk – found habitual tea drinkers had significantly higher bone mineral density.
Limit your meat intake – Experts have always been puzzled by the fact Asian countries have low levels of osteoporotic fractures, even though dairy doesn’t feature heavily in their diets. It could be that Western diets, high in animal protein, are to blame. Protein is acid-forming, which causes calcium to be leached from bones in a bid to neutralise it.
A US study on post-menopausal women following a high-protein weight loss diet found that, although they did lose weight, they also lost up to 1.4 per cent of their bone density, increasing their risk of osteoporosis.
Hold the salt – Too much salt in your diet is bad for bones – Australian research suggests that it increases calcium excretion from the body. High salt intakes also push up your blood pressure, which may exacerbate this loss. Stick to less than 6g a day to stay healthy.
Go for vitamin C-rich foods – High levels of vitamin C may help to strengthen bone and prevent fractures in elderly patients, research has found. Vitamin C helps manufacture collagen, the ‘cement’ that holds the bone matrix together. You can find vitamin C in oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, kiwi fruit and berries, or take a supplement.
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