How to help prevent osteoporosis

Jane Garton

Taking sensible steps to reduce the risk of osteoporosis can help you avoid broken bones later in life.

Bones cells go through a constant process of renewal and until the age of 30 are replaced faster than they are lost. From then on, however, the opposite is true and men and women start to lose bone as part of the natural ageing process.

In women, this bone loss speeds up to two or three per cent around the time of the menopause as a result of the natural drop in oestrogen, which helps to protect bone, making them more vulnerable to osteoporosis. Otherwise known as the fragile bone disease, it occurs when bones lose calcium (the mineral in bone) and collagen (the gluey protein that helps to keep them strong). As a result they become more fragile and likely to break.

50% of women affected

Statistics show that osteoporosis affects a staggering one in two women over the age of 50. ‘Although middle aged men are less susceptible because their bones are bigger and denser, one in five also succumb to this debilitating disease,’ explains Sarah Leyland, osteoporosis nurse for the National Osteoporosis Society.

'In almost half of all men with osteoporosis, the cause is unknown,' says Sarah. 'Low levels of testosterone, known as hypogonadism, can be a factor and is found in 20 per cent of men with vertebral crush fractures and 50 per cent of men with hip fractures,' she adds.

Apart from the natural ageing process, other risk factors for osteoporosis include a family history, early menopause, smoking, a high alcohol intake, being thin (weighing less than nine stone) and long-term use of steroids for conditions such as arthritis.

But despite these factors, osteoporosis is not inevitable and there is a still a lot you can do to help keep your bones strong and healthy.

Get out in the sunshine

‘We need vitamin D to help our bodies absorb calcium and sunlight is the main source,’ says Sarah. ‘Exposing your hands, arms and face for around 10 to 20 minutes a day is the recommended amount for maximum bone benefits.’ You need to take care not to burn and to apply sunscreen with at least SPF 15 if you stay out in the sun for longer. You should also try to up the vitamin D content of your diet – oily fish are an excellent source as are shitake mushrooms and egg yolks.

Eat a varied diet

‘Bone building is a complex mechanism involving many elements. Calcium is a key nutrient needed for good bone health, but it is only part of the equation,’ explains Sarah. Magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin C, vitamin D and boron are all important too so don’t just stick to milk and dairy products for your calcium. Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are also full of bone healthy nutrients.

Some studies show that phytoestrogens, natural substances found in plants that mimic natural oestrogen, may help to keep bones strong but more research is needed to support this theory.

Go for the right fats

Research suggests that foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids seem to help absorption of calcium from the diet. Omega-3s are found in fish oils, oily fish (mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines and pilchards) and some cooking oils such as rapeseed and flaxseed, while good sources of omega-6s include sunflower and corn oil, almonds, green leafy vegetables, flaxseeds and wholegrain cereals.

Don't smoke and watch your drinking

Smoking can have a toxic effect on bones so is best avoided. Excess alcohol can have a similar effect although one or two glasses of red wine may benefit the skeleton as well as the heart. 'The best advice is to stick within the recommended government weekly limits of 21 units for men and 14 units for women, and to have alcohol-free days every week,' says Sarah.

Keep moving

Exercise plays a vital part in keeping bones healthy. It helps to stimulate bone-making cells as well as strengthening bones. High impact activities, which slightly jar the bone, are the most beneficial. Running, jogging, brisk walking and lifting weights are all good choices. If you are new to exercise though it is better to opt for gentler alternatives such as golf, gardening, rowing in the gym and swimming to avoid harming joints, as you get older. You should aim for 30 minutes of some sort of activity most days of the week. 'Keeping fit and active is not only about keeping bones strong but will also help to prevent the falls that can result in hip fracture,' says Sarah.

Think about supplements

There are many bone-building supplements on the market but you should be able to get the nutrients you need from your diet. ‘If you really cannot get the necessary nutrients from your diet you should consider taking a daily multi vitamin. Calcium and vitamin D supplements are also useful, especially for older frailer people at risk of hip fracture, ‘ says Sarah. 700mg of calcium is the amount recommended by the National Osteoporosis Society although if you already have osteoporosis or are taking medication you may need 1000 – 1200mg.

Did you know?

  • Every three minutes someone has a fracture as a result of osteoporosis
  • There are more than 230,000 fractures of the hip, wrist and vertebrae in the UK every year
  • There are 200,000 fractures a year in the UK caused by osteoporosis
  • Professional tennis players can have 25 % higher bone density in their serving arm compared to their non-serving arm showing how exercise can help to make bones stronger
  • One in two women and one in five men will suffer a fracture after the age of 50 mainly because of osteoporosis

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.