At just 53 years old, Nancy Hobbs, a Tampa-area nurse, was bending down to help her elderly mother-in-law off the floor when she felt a sharp pop in her back. Crippled by excruciating pain and unable to walk, she practically had to crawl to the telephone to dial 911.
“When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me that I had broken my back,” Nancy, now 60, recalls. “I was shocked and devastated.”
A bone density scan confirmed what doctors had suspected: that Nancy had osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bones to the point where they become increasingly brittle and vulnerable to spontaneous fracture.
“Osteoporosis simply wasn’t on my radar,” Nancy, now 60, recalls. “I was used to doing what I wanted, when I wanted. All of a sudden, I was an invalid in the house who couldn’t move or go anywhere.”
According to Dr. Bill Tontz, an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist at Scripps Health in San Diego, Nancy’s story is nothing unique. Throughout his practice, he has seen numerous instances of osteoporosis-related spinal fracture in patients as young as their fifties or early sixties.
“I’ll get calls for a hip fracture in the emergency room and the patient will say that she just fell and shattered her hip. With osteoporosis, you can fracture bones simply under your own body weight,” Dr. Tontz explains.
We often think of osteoporosis as a disease of the elderly, but in reality the condition can strike as early as age 50. Characterized by diminishing bone density and increased susceptibility for fractures, osteoporosis—which means “porous bone”—is extremely prevalent among the over-50 population. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the disease affects nearly 9 million adults in the United States, and another 43 million have low bone mass. What’s more, a 2012 report issued by the Surgeon General projected that by year 2020, half of Americans over age 50 will be at risk for fractures due to osteoporosis and low bone mass.
“It’s a silent disease,” Dr. Tontz notes, adding that up to two-thirds of osteoporotic cases go undiagnosed. “On the outside, a person might look completely healthy and well, but they could be living with severe osteoporosis and not know it.”
Although some thinning and weakening of the bones is inevitable with age, a number of lifestyle and genetic factors can exacerbate bone loss. Lack of vitamin D, insufficient calcium intake, menopause, a sedentary lifestyle, having a small, thin frame, alcohol and nicotine use, and certain medications can put a person at increased risk of developing osteporosis. Genetics also play a role, as osteoporosis tends to run in families and is particularly common among individuals of Northern European descent. Additionally, women are more prone to osteoporosis than men because of smaller bone size and age-related hormone changes.
If you fit these characteristics, how can you take steps to ward off osteoporosis? For one thing, Dr. Tontz stresses the importance of participating in regular weight-bearing exercises. Any activity that makes your bones work against gravity (think running, brisk walking, weight lifting or even yoga) can offer stellar bone-boosting benefits.
“Weight bearing exercises are paramount,” Dr. Tontz says. “The old adage ‘move it or lose it’ is a truism. The bones are very similar to muscle in their evolutionary design. You can stimulate bone to strengthen itself and correct for the loss of bone just by doing weight-bearing exercise.”
Another way to safeguard against osteoporosis is by consuming a healthy, nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and calcium-fortified foods. He also recommends avoiding soft drinks, which act as calcium-sappers for the bone. “The increased phosphorus in soda is not good for the body and can leach out calcium from the bones,” he notes.
The good news? Because bones are living tissues that are constantly re-growing and repairing themselves, osteoporosis can be curbed or halted with the proper treatment approach and lifestyle interventions. “I was able to go back to work two to three weeks after shattering my spine,” Nancy says.
To correct her spine fracture, she underwent a minimally invasive procedure known as balloon kyphoplasty, which involves a surgeon inflating an orthopedic balloon inside of the fractured bone to lift and return it to the correct position. This surgery, coupled with a healthier diet and basic strength-training, has enabled her to regain mobility and return to the things she loves, such as canoeing and golfing. Nancy urges people to start taking precautions to protect bone health in their thirties, forties and beyond.
“Osteoporosis isn’t on a lot of people’s radars, but they need to know about it early on so they can be more mindful about it,” Nancy says. “My advice would be to get a bone density scan as soon as you turn 50.”
Dr. Tontz agrees. “It really comes down to two components: diet and exercise. What you eat on a day-to-day basis, and getting enough physical activity,” he explains. “Doing this will protect against the ravages of osteoporosis.”