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Understanding osteoporosis

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In these modern times, we have broken records in terms of longevity in industrialized countries. We live longer, yes, but an aging population can make certain diseases, such as osteoporosis, increase significantly.

Mieux comprendre l’ostéoporose

What is osteoporosis?

You have most likely heard this medical term often, but you may not really know the details of the condition. Learning more about this topic could one day come in handy, since statistics show that your chances of developing it in the future are constantly increasing. Indeed, it is said that at least one out of three women and one out of five men will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture during their lifetime. Here’s betting we’ve caught your attention!

To understand osteoporosis, we must first learn about bones. A bone is essentially made of collagen and minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. Throughout its life, it goes through remodelling; cells (osteoblasts) form the bone tissue, while other cells (osteoclasts) break up the old bone and create cavities. The balance of these two types of cells determines a person’s bone structure. In childhood and adolescence, we “build up” our bone mass. In the mid-thirties, this balance is harder to maintain and we gradually start losing it, a process that just keeps advancing with age.

Osteoporosis is a chronic disease that is characterized by a loss of bone density and strength, which makes them more vulnerable to fractures. Usually, bones become more fragile due to a lack of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D or other minerals. Fractures generally occur after an accidental fall that, normally, would not have led to complications. Most often, fractures tend to happen in the wrists, spine and hips. 

Most people are unaware that they have osteoporosis; before a fracture happens, they don’t usually feel any symptoms. Paradoxically, when a fracture does occur, it is because the disease has already been present for a long time, in most cases. For that reason, it is best to learn about the condition before it deals you a hard blow.

Causes of osteoporosis

In a way, a bone is a living tissue; it builds up and breaks down constantly during a person’s lifetime. And as we mentioned above, up until the mid-thirties, osteoblasts are significantly more active than osteoclasts. Hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, are partly responsible for regulating the whole process. Until the age of 40, both types of cells work at the same pace, which maintains bone mass. Later, bones break down more than they are formed; bone mass then decreases by 1 to 2% per year.

To this day, no specific cause has been identified to explain osteoporosis. However, some risk factors have been determined.

Risk factors of osteoporosis

Some people are more susceptible to osteoporosis. Here are the risk factors:

  • female;
  • age (over 65);
  • sedentariness;
  • frail constitution;
  • family history of fractures caused by osteoporosis;
  • early menopause (before the age of 45);
  • suffering from a disease that decreases absorption of calcium in the intestines;
  • absence of menstruation for more than six months (not linked to pregnancy);
  • taking oral cortisone treatments for over three months;
  • smoking;
  • race: Caucasians and Asians are at higher risk;
  • excessive intake of alcohol or caffeine;
  • diet lacking in calcium and vitamin D.

Calcium and vitamin D: the key to strong bones

At every age, humans must get enough calcium and vitamin D to maintain healthy bones. Until their late twenties, these minerals are used to build bone mass, and later, to maintain it or to prevent it from deteriorating. Consequently, the best way to prevent osteoporosis is to make sure your intake of calcium and vitamin D is sufficient during your entire life. Just as it is unrealistic to hope for a cozy retirement if you haven’t saved any money throughout the years, you can’t expect to have strong, healthy bones in later years if you don’t invest in their well-being today.

Your pharmacist can help you determine your daily needs in calcium and vitamin D, depending on your age and health. He or she can also suggest ways to meet them through your diet or by taking supplements.

The consequences of an osteoporotic fracture

At first glance, osteoporosis can seem like a not-so-worrisome disease; its most common and regrettable complication is a fracture. But too often, we underestimate the consequences of an osteoporotic fracture on someone’s health, quality of life and autonomy. Vertebral or hip fractures, especially, can have very serious consequences.

Fractures can be quite painful and almost always require a stay in hospital. After a hip fracture, only 20 to 60% of patients regain the same level of autonomy in daily life after a long period of rehabilitation. Many senior citizens, however, have to be permanently placed in a nursing home. In addition, fractures represent a significant cause of death in the elderly.

Treating osteoporosis

If you suffer from osteoporosis, it is most likely that your doctor will prescribe medication. Before doing so, though, you will have to be tested to evaluate the condition of your bones. The most common test is bone densitometry, which is a kind of radiological examination. It allows to calculate the risk of fracture before treatment begins, then to follow how well treatment is working.

In Canada, several medications are approved to prevent or treat osteoporosis. They come in various forms, such as tablets and injections. Some need to be taken every day, while others are administered once a week, once a month, or even, in some cases, once or twice a year. It is best to talk to your doctor and pharmacist to identify the type of therapy you prefer. You can also discuss the benefits and possible side effects of each medication.

In addition to helping you shed light on all the medicinal treatments that are available, your pharmacist can suggest methods to prevent osteoporosis, such as:

  • making sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D;
  • maintaining a balanced diet and a healthy weight;
  • quitting smoking;
  • exercising regularly;
  • drinking alcohol in moderation.

He or she can also help you develop strategies to reduce your risk of accidental falls and bone fractures, especially if you live alone.

Basically, your pharmacist can help you in countless ways, so don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as you wish!

In conclusion, osteoporosis is a major public-health issue that affects everyone. Don’t wait until it breaks into your routine before taking action; it is never too early or too late to start taking care of your bones’ health. Just as it is in the investment world, you must make use of the best strategies and, more importantly, know how to find excellent advisors!

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