12 February 2007

Osteoporosis and your diet

A healthy diet throughout the different life stages may play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis - a condition which is usually associated with old age.

Although osteoporosis usually only manifests in old age, many of the factors that predispose men, and particularly women, to develop this disease play a role from as early as the teenage years. A healthy diet throughout the different life stages may, however, play a role in its prevention.

What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is defined as a condition where the amount of bone in the skeleton decreases so that bones become porous and brittle. This decrease in bone mass undermines the structure of the bones making people vulnerable to fractures.

Such fractures of the hip, leg, arm and neck bones cause a great deal of suffering, necessitate very expensive surgery, and can even be the cause of death. Osteoporosis, therefore, sharply decreases the quality of life of older men and women.

What factors influence osteoporosis?
The two most important factors that determine if someone is going to develop osteoporosis, are 'peak bone mass' and the rate at which this maximum amount of bone is lost over time.

Peak bone mass is in turn influenced by:

  • Genetic factors - some individuals have a lighter and more brittle skeleton from birth

  • How the skeleton is used - people who do plenty of load-bearing exercise all their lives have a higher peak bone mass than those who lead sedentary lives

  • Nutritional intake, particularly of calcium, and protein

  • Gender - women have a lower peak bone mass than men

  • Race - black people tend to have a much higher peak bone mass than Caucasians and Asians which is why osteoporosis is relatively unknown in Africa generally.

  • Cigarette smoking decreases peak bone mass and should be avoided

  • Excessive alcohol intake also has a negative impact and drinking should always be kept at a moderate level

  • Self-imposed starvation (anorexia) can have a disastrous effect on peak bone mass and cause osteoporosis at a much earlier age than normal

Bone loss is influenced by the following:

  • Because women start out with a lower peak bone mass than men, they also tend to lose more bone and at a faster rate than men as they age

  • Menopause - lack of oestrogen speeds up bone loss

  • Lack of exercise is also linked to increased bone loss

  • Low calcium intake accelerates bone loss

  • Smoking and alcohol abuse

  • Increasing age - bone loss increases with age

  • Nulliparity - not ever having given birth to a baby

How to prevent osteoporosis
We can't influence our genetic makeup, our gender, race, or age, but it is possible to take precautions which can prevent osteoporosis.

5 steps to prevent osteoporosis

  • Be active, do exercise, especially so-called load-bearing exercises all your life

  • Don't smoke or abuse alcohol

  • Take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after the menopause (early or late menopause)

  • Never starve yourself or allow yourself to develop anorexia - go for help immediately

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium all your life, but particularly during the early years when your body is depositing calcium in the bones to ensure an adequate peak bone mass for the rest of your life

Bone density determinations
It is a good idea to have bone density determinations done if you fall into any of the above mentioned risk categories, e.g. white females who smoke, drink alcohol, do not exercise and have a low calcium intake, or any woman over the age of 40. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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Healthy Bones

Tereza is the CEO of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and worked as a Nursing Sister in the field of Osteoporosis for 18 years prior to her appointment with the Foundation. She used to be the Educational Officer for the Foundation and co-wrote the patient brochure on Osteoporosis. Read more

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