What you need to know about osteoporosis

A surprising number of women will have their lives changed by osteoporosis – but most don’t even know they have the bone-weakening disease.

When Jane Scoble tripped at the end of her stairs at 50, she should have escaped with a bruise or small break.

Instead, her right shoulder “exploded” and she was rushed to hospital, where she was patched up before having a total shoulder replacement.

The reason? Osteoporosis.

Jane, now 58, recalls being shocked by the diagnosis and the way it would change her life, including giving up her passion for skiing.

“The surgeon told me that my shoulder was a mess as my bones were so soft and brittle,” she says.

“That was the first sign I had osteoporosis and it came as such a surprise.”

Like Jane, one in three Australian women aged 50 and above will experience a fracture caused by osteoporosis – but most don’t know they have the disease.

To mark World Osteoporosis Day, a new campaign called Osteoporosis Xplained aims to change that.

A website has been developed to help raise awareness and understanding of the disease and decode “doctor speak” to explain risk factors and the importance of management.

It warns 70 per cent of Australian women aged 55 to 64 have not talked to their doctor about osteoporosis and only one in five considers it a risk.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone disease causing weakened, porous bones that are prone to breaking.

It occurs when bones lose minerals like calcium faster than the body can replace them, sparking a loss of bone density or mass.

In Australia, a bone is broken every three to four minutes because of poor bone health, according to Osteoporosis Xplained.

What causes osteoporosis

Men and women are both susceptible to developing osteoporosis, with age, lifestyle, diet and genetics among the risk factors.

Prof Markus Seibel of the University of Sydney says in some patients, the causes can be traced back to childhood.

“When you are born and grow up, you build your bones,” he says.

“If you go back say 150 years to industrial cities like Liverpool and Manchester, there were lots of children with what we call rickets because the sunlight couldn’t penetrate through the smog.

“They were vitamin D deficient and weren’t absorbing calcium.

“These days we are seeing adults with osteoporosis who grew up in poor families and weren’t getting enough nutrition, and children who didn’t spend enough time playing outside when they grew up.”

He says a lack of exercise, conditions like anorexia nervosa, poor diets and low calcium intake can also erode the body’s ability to build important bone mass.

Menopause is a key time in a woman’s life to focus on prevention, as less bone-strengthening oestrogen is produced.

How you can prevent osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is an age-related disease, but there are ways of slowing the down the onset and building bones, says Prof Seibel.

“Calcium, Vitamin D and exercise are the big ones,” he says.

“People have to realise that calcium is not easy to come by, and everyone loses half a gram of calcium every day.

“Only 40 per cent of the calcium we eat gets absorbed, so we need to be eating three serves a day. That’s a 250mL serving of milk, a few slices of cheese and a tub of yoghurt.”

He says safe exposure to sunshine is also crucial to boost levels of calcium-absorbing Vitamin D.

Depending on the season and location, this could be 30 minutes a day in winter and as little as 10 minute in summer, he says.

“Vitamin D deficiency is so common in Australia because of skin cancer, which one can understand,” he says.

“The sun is not your friend. So it can be much easier to take a supplement, rather than risk getting burned.”

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Written by Elissa Doherty