As teens, many of us think we are ‘invincible’. We ignore our parents’ pleas to eat healthily and get some exercise. We stay up too late and we take risks – “So what if I get a little sunburnt today? It’s the price you pay for a great tan.”
But as we grow older, health is more front of mind. We hear about the impact of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer – often through experiences of family, friends and colleagues – and wonder about our own risk and what we can do to reduce that risk.
Another disease we start to hear more about as we grow older is osteoporosis, which makes our bones fragile and brittle, leading to a higher risk of fractures (breaks) than in normal bone. And just like heart disease and cancer, poor lifestyle choices in earlier years can increase your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Osteoporosis is more common than people think and can be hugely debilitating.1
The ‘silent’ disease
You may be surprised to hear that one in three Australians is affected by osteoporosis or has ‘thin bones’ that can lead to osteoporosis.
If you have osteoporosis, it’s possible you wouldn’t even know it as there are no obvious symptoms. In fact, four in every five Australians who have the disease are unaware and therefore don’t know they are at risk of fracturing (breaking) a bone.
It is important to know if you are at risk of osteoporosis, because once you fracture a bone, there is a 2-4 times greater risk of having another fracture within 12 months. The risk rises rapidly with each fracture and is known as the ‘cascade effect.’1
What causes osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis occurs when your bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than your body can replace them, leading to a loss of bone thickness (bone mass or density).
Women are at greater risk than men because of the rapid decline in oestrogen levels during menopause. When oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate. Bone loss of around 2% a year occurs for several years after menopause.
Men also lose bone as they age, however testosterone levels in men decline more gradually, so their bone mass remains stronger till later in life.
As your bones become thinner and less dense, even a minor bump or fall can cause fractures. A fracture is a complete or partial break in a bone. Any bone can be affected, but the most common people fracture are the spine, hip, upper arm, wrist, ribs and forearm.
Fractures due to osteoporosis can cause chronic pain, disability, loss of independence and even premature death.1,2
Identifying your risk
Even though there are no symptoms, there are risk factors for osteoporosis that you can work with your healthcare professional to understand and identify.
- Family history – if anyone in your family (particularly parents or siblings) has ever been diagnosed with osteoporosis, broken a bone from a minor fall or rapidly lost height
- Low calcium intake or low vitamin D levels
- Low levels of physical activity
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Weight – being underweight or overweight
- Certain medical conditions and medications2
A simple and effective way to check on your bone health and risk of fracture is to do the online assessment at Know Your Bones.
Developed by Osteoporosis Australia and the Garvan Institute, the assessment takes about 5 to 10 minutes and gives you a report of your risk results and recommendations that you can discuss with your doctor.
Based on your results, your doctor may recommend a bone density scan, which measures the density of your bones, usually at the hip and spine. If you have osteoporosis or are at risk of osteoporosis, your doctor or a specialist can recommend treatments and lifestyle adjustments to strengthen your bones.3
- Osteoporosis Australia: What you need to know about osteoporosis (Accessed 30 July 2018)
- Osteoporosis Australia: Risk factors (Accessed 31 July 2018) https://www.osteoporosis.org.au/risk-factors
- Osteoporosis Australia: Diagnosis (Accessed 31 July 2018) https://www.osteoporosis.org.au/diagnosis
AU-09746. Approved November 2018.