Written by Charlotte Haigh MacNeil
Meet our expert: Sarah Leyland is senior nurse and helpline manager at the National Osteoporosis Society (nos.org.uk)
Looking after your bones is vital at any age, but it becomes even more important as you get older. Bone density continues to increase until our late 20s, when it stabilises. But after our mid-30s, bone density starts to weaken very gradually as part of the natural ageing process.
Post-menopause, bone loss happens more quickly. Our bodies makes less protective oestrogen and, without this, your bones could become fragile and thin, putting you at risk of osteoporosis and a painful fracture or broken bone. The good news is that there is still lots you can do to protect your bones and reduce your risk of osteoporosis.
Take our quiz to work out how healthy your bones are – then read on to find out how to boost your bone health, with advice from our expert Sarah Leyland.
Are you at risk?
1. Are you over 50?
Why it matters: The risk goes up with age because your bones get more fragile, so break more easily.
2. Has a family member (a parent, uncle, aunt or sibling, for example) broken a bone because of osteoporosis?
Why it matters: Between 50 and 85 per cent of our bone health is down to genetics, so if a family member has had a fracture as a result of osteoporosis, that raises your own risk.
3. Are you white or Asian?
Why it matters: People who are of Caribbean descent tend to have bigger, stronger bones.
4. Have you been through menopause?
Why it matters: Bone loss accelerates after menopause because you lose the protective effects of the hormone oestrogen. If you went through menopause early (before 45), you’re at higher risk because you’ve had low oestrogen levels for longer (unless you were put on hormone replacement therapy).
5. Do you have a history of extreme dieting?
Why it matters: A history of strict diets or an eating disorder may mean you missed out on crucial bone nutrients such as calcium, particularly if you dieted in your teens or 20s, when your body was laying down bone mass.
6. Do you do fewer than 30 minutes of activity five times a week (such as walking, jogging or gardening)?
Why it matters: This kind of exercise helps maintain bone density.
7. Do you avoid dairy products?
Why it matters: Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt are the best sources of calcium, vital for bone health.
8. Do you smoke?
Why it matters: If you’re a current smoker, you’re more likely to develop fragile bones.
9. Do you drink more than three units of alcohol daily?
Why it matters: Drinking above the daily limits raises your risk. Three units are equal to a large glass of wine.
10. Are you underweight?
Why it matters: If your doctor’s told you that you’re under a healthy weight for your height, your bones may be smaller and more fragile, making you more prone to osteoporosis.
11. Have you broken bones easily in the past?
Why it matters: If you’ve broken bones easily in the past, especially in the wrist, hip, rib or spine, you’re much more likely to have fractures in the future.
12. Have you had rheumatoid arthritis, long periods of being immobile, epilepsy, breast cancer or a condition that affects the way you absorb nutrients (such as Crohn’s disease or colitis)?
Why it matters: Certain medical conditions – or the treatments you might have for them – can affect your bones. For example, some conditions mean your body can’t properly use all the nutrients your bones need.
Osteoporosis is a common disease and all the factors above could increase your chances of developing it. The more ‘Yes’ you ticked, the greater your risk. There’s no way to tell you have osteoporosis – it only causes pain or discomfort if you break a bone.
So if you’re concerned speak to your GP. Fortunately, there are some easy lifestyle steps you can take to protect your bones. “While you can’t usually improve your bone density when you’re older, you can keep your bones strong and take steps to cut your chances of having a fracture,” says Sarah Leyland.
How can I help myself?
Weight-bearing exercise – any form of activity in which you’re carrying the weight of your own body, from aerobics to skipping and weight-lifting – helps build a healthy skeleton, so try to be as active as you can be. “Exercise is also important for other reasons,” says Sarah.
“As you get older, you need to cut your risk of falling over as well as looking after your bones. With age, your reflexes often slow and your balance may not be as good as it was. So exercise helps improve your strength, balance and coordination.”
Try to include some activities such as yoga and tai chi, which work on balance and posture. Starting now will help to prevent problems in the future.
Eat a bone-friendly diet
“A well-balanced diet is really important,” says Sarah. “You need 700mg calcium daily, which is roughly equivalent to a pint of milk.” Dairy products, tinned fish containing bones (such as sardines) and green leafy veg are all good sources.
But it’s not just about calcium, says Sarah. “You also need enough protein, found in meat, fish and pulses. The best way to cover all the bases is to eat a varied, balanced diet with plenty of fresh, unprocessed food.”
Beat bad habits
If you’ve smoked your whole life, it will have contributed to bone weakening. But it’s especially dangerous to smoke during menopause, as it speeds up the bone-loss process. It’s never too late to quit – speak to your doctor, who can prescribe nicotine replacement therapy and counselling, if necessary. “Excessive alcohol also has an impact,” says Sarah. Stick to the recommended one to two units daily (with one unit equal to a small glass of wine or a single measure of spirits).
Talk about HRT
“For some women, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be useful in reducing the risk of osteoporosis,” says Sarah. “That may be the case for you if you had an early menopause or you have a high risk of osteoporosis for other reasons. Your GP can advise if HRT would be suitable for you.”
“Vitamin D is another crucial bone nutrient,” says Sarah. Your body makes it from sunlight so you need to get outside every day, without sunscreen. But make sure you never burn. For the average fair-skinned person, around ten minutes a day in the spring and summer is enough. Or you could take a supplement, such as Better You DLux 3000, £7.95/15ml.
- There's more health advice in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.