Why do elderly bones break more easily?

As we age, our bones can become weak or brittle. Weak bones break more easily than normal bones. How can we prevent this as we get older?

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis, meaning porous bones, is a condition where the density and quality of our bones are reduced. As the disease progresses, the risk of fractures increases. Even a minor bump or fall can cause a fracture.

Osteoporosis occurs when our bone loss is more than bone production. As we age, we have a higher chance of getting the disease. 

No Early Signs for Osteoperosis

But unlike common chronic diseases such as diabetes which can be picked out by blood tests, osteoporosis is known as a silent disease.

There are no signs in the early stages of osteoporosis. It is usually identified only when bones fracture or break.

“Before my fall, I did not suspect that I had osteoporosis. It was only after I sat down heavily while gardening in my early 70s that I found my back hurting unbearably. I then found out that I had fractured my spine!” says Yip Ng Moi, a 79-year-old housewife.

“Although my spine healed well, I now try not to miss my daily morning walks and exercise sessions with my friends. I make sure that I take my medication and supplements prescribed by my doctor. I try to eat calcium-rich foods regularly as well. For example, I make my own soya bean dishes and drink.”

How To Keep Your Bones Strong As You Age?

As you grow older bone mineral density decreases. 

Bones are living tissues that change constantly. New bone cells are made to replace and repair old and worn-out ones.

To keep this cycle going, our bodies need calcium, a nutrient that helps our muscles and nerves function. When we do not have enough calcium, our body ‘withdraws’ from our bones.

Imagine our bones as a calcium bank. During our growing-up years, we deposit more calcium than we use. This is why it is important to reach maximum bone growth or “calcium savings” before we turn 30.

From the ages of 30 to 50, our bone mass deposits do not change much. However, women older than 50 and men after the age of 65 start using up our deposits faster than we can save. That’s when bone tissue loss usually occurs.

Osteoporosis, however, does not affect only the elderly. If mature adults in their 40s do not have a regular calcium intake, they are also at risk of osteoporosis. And a fall too can lead to bone fractures.

The most common body areas to suffer fractures are the hips (from falling backwards), and wrists (from falling forwards). Studies have shown that one in three people with hip fractures suffer a loss of functions such as walking, and need to depend on others to get around.

What Makes Bones Strong?

As our population ages, osteoporosis is fast becoming a common health problem in Singapore.

However, we can still protect ourselves from bone tissue loss before it is too late. Here’s how.

Exercise Helps With Building Strong Bones

Staying active will decrease the risk of osteoporosis

Studies have shown that physical activity such as weight-bearing and resistance exercises helps in bone formation and building strong bones.

Weight-bearing exercises are those you do on your feet supporting your body weight, such as brisk walking, dancing, stair climbing, tai chi etc.

Resistance exercises are those that work your muscles against resistance. Examples are exercises such as bicep or triceps curls that use free weights or weight machines. Or you can use your body weight in exercises such as modified push-ups (i.e. placing your arms against a wall or bench and lowering your chest to the surface) or calf raises (i.e. standing and rising on your toes). Even day-to-day carrying of groceries helps.

If you are considering starting an exercise programme, try walking. While outdoors, you can get your free vitamin D intake from the sun, a vital ingredient that helps your body absorb calcium.

If you prefer to do your walking exercise at home, you can walk or march on the spot. Or try brisk walking with light hand weights.

Start slowly if you have not been exercising, and don’t forget to let your body rest and recover in between workouts to avoid overtraining and injury.

Remember to consult a doctor before beginning any exercise regime. If you have existing health problems or have been diagnosed as having bone-loss, your doctor can recommend activities that are safe for you.

Consume Calcium-Rich Foods

Consuming foods high in calcium will help in building strong bones.

Eating calcium-rich foods is important for bone health and not as difficult as it seems.

The key is to eat a variety of foods from different food groups.

The foods high in calcium are dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Other good calcium sources are fish with edible bones, tofu, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach.

You can take a look at this healthy food guide and list of calcium food for ideas to plan your calcium-rich meals. If you have been prescribed nutritional supplements by your doctor, don’t forget to take them.

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. While there are food sources of Vitamin D, the best way to get enough Vitamin D daily for bone health is to take a 15 to 20-minute walk outdoors. We can do this in the morning or in the late afternoon when the sun is less scorching. The daily walk will also help us meet experts’ suggested health guidelines of 150 minutes of physical activity a week.

Quit Smoking and Limit Your Intake of Alcohol and Caffeine

Smoking causes bone loss. So if you do not smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, get support to quit now. If you are considering quitting your smoking habit, you can find more about about the I Quit Program.

Alcoholic drinks are also known to be damaging to our bones and can put you at risk of falling. Excessive amounts of alcohol can even decrease bone formation and your body’s ability to absorb calcium. Take a look at HPB’s drinking limit guideline to find out how much is too much. In general, three drinks for men a day and two drinks for women a day are the upper limit. Limiting or avoiding alcohol is best for bone health.

Other bad habits to drop include the over-consumption of caffeinated drinks such as certain soft drinks, tea and coffee. Having six or more servings of caffeine a day has been shown to decrease our calcium absorption.

Identify Your Risk Factors and Assess Your Risk

Determine your risk of osteoporosis with a self-assessment tool.

Prevention is better than cure. This may sound like a cliché but you have the opportunity to take control of the condition with the right preventive measures. Knowing the risk factors can help you cut your risks of getting the disease.

Use the Bone Mineral Density (BMD) Test to Detect Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a silent disease with no signs and symptoms and it is often detected when one suffers a fracture. The best way to detect the disease is through a Bone Mineral Density (BMD) Test to measure bone density at different parts of your body e.g., hip, spine. The test is simple and non-invasive and can be done at most local hospitals.

Consult your doctor for a BMD Test if you have these risk factors:

  • You are on prolonged use of steroids
  • You have a family history of hip fractures
  • You have been immobilised for a long period of time e.g., bedridden due to illness or hospital care
  • You have a thin or small frame
  • You had a previous fracture due to a fall
  • You reached menopause before the age of 45
  • You are a younger woman who has missed menstrual periods for a long time
  • You have an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia

Self-Assess Your Risk of Osteoporosis

If you are worried about your osteoporosis risk, try these:

Take Your Osteoporosis Medications

If you have already been prescribed medication for osteoporosis, take it. This can help manage your bone loss as you age.

So take action today and invest in your bone health!

The 5-Step Bone Health Action List

You can protect your bones with these 5 steps;

  1. Exercise regularly to maintain bone health
  2. Get enough bone-healthy nutrients and calcium-rich foods
  3. Quit smoking and reduce the intake of alcohol and caffeinated drinks
  4. Assess your risk of osteoporosis
  5. Take your prescribed osteoporosis medication

World Osteoporosis Day

The World Osteoporosis Day takes place every year on 20 October to raise global awareness of osteoporosis.

Find out more about osteoporosis from these organisations:

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