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Bone Health

Men and women lose bone as they grow older. But women need to give bone health their full attention, even more so than men. Women have smaller bones than men. But also, they lose bone faster than men do because of hormonal changes that occur during the meno-pause transition and after menopause. Over time bone loss can lead to osteo-porosis (OSS-tee-oh-puh-ROH-suhss), which makes your bones weak and more likely to break. Of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, 80 percent are women. Osteoporosis affects all people, including women of color. But those at greatest risk are:

  • Caucasian women
  • Thin, small-boned women
  • Women with a family history of bone breaks because of weak bones or who have broken a bone as an adult
  • Women who smoke
  • Women who use certain medicines for a long time, such as those used to treat asthma, lupus, and seizures

Your bone health matters because your risk of falling goes up as you get older. About 1 in 4 women age 50 and older falls each year. Broken bones that result from falls are frequently caused by osteoporosis or low bone mass. A broken bone - commonly of the hip, spine, or wrist - is often how a woman finds out she has osteoporosis.

Don't let a broken bone be your wake-up call. Talk to your doctor about your risk of osteoporosis and whether you need a bone density test. This test can tell how strong your bones are and if you have a higher chance for breaks. You should get a bone density test if you are age 65 or older or if you are between ages 60 and 64, weigh less than 154 pounds, and don't take estrogen. Also, take these steps to help keep your bones strong and prevent bone loss:

  • Eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. Both are needed to build bone and keep bones strong. Adults age 50 and older need 1200 mg of calcium and 400 to 600 IU or more of vitamin D3 daily. Supplements can help if you cannot get the amount you need from the foods you eat.
  • Engage in weight-bearing physical ac-tivity 3 to 4 times a week to make bones stronger. Examples include walking, jogging, tennis, and dancing.
  • Don't smoke, and use alcohol only in moderation. Smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Heavy drinking is linked to lower bone density and high risk of bone breaks.

Falls are the most common cause of injury and injury-related death among older adults. Falls that result in serious injury, like a broken bone, can threaten your physical health and independence. Even if you don't get hurt from a fall, a fear of falling again can keep you from doing things you want or need to do. This can result in isolation and depression. There are many reasons older people fall more. But hazards around you are the leading cause of falls. Many times, these falls could have been avoided.

Here are some steps you can take to lower your risk of falling:

  • Get regular physical activity to improve strength and balance.
  • Ask your doctor to review the medicines you are using to check for side effects and interactions that might make you dizzy or sleepy.
  • Have your eyesight checked by an eye doctor every 1 or 2 years.
  • Make your home safer: Install handrails and grab bars, secure throw rugs, improve lighting, remove clutter you can trip over, keep items you use daily within easy reach, and wear supportive shoes both inside and outside.

For women at high risk of bone disease, many medicines can help slow bone loss and reduce the risk of bone breaks. Short-term use of estrogen (menopausal hormone therapy, or MHT) can relieve symptoms of menopause and prevent bone loss. But long-term estrogen use has serious risks. If used, MHT should be used for the shortest time possible. Currently, no "natural" products, such as phytoestrogens (feye-toh-ESS-truh-juhnz), are recommended to prevent osteoporosis. If you are at high risk, talk to your doctor about your options.

Adapted from The Healthy Woman: A Complete Guide for All Ages, 2008
Chapter on Healthy Aging
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 31, 2014