Bone health for women after age 50

December 29, 2017 Providence Health Team

For many women in the U.S., turning 50 signals a rite of passage in personal health that not all are keen to embrace. Scheduling a colonoscopy. The onset of menopause. The beginning of bone density loss.

Your health after 50 may be different, but it doesn’t have to be downhill.

Consider what it means to enter your fifth decade in the Netherlands. Women there turning 50 are a celebrated lot. They call it their “Sarah” birthday – a reference to the biblical character and a nod to achieving a certain level of life wisdom.

So embrace the wisdom you’ve earned as you embark on inevitable change – especially when it comes to bone health.

Being female means bigger risk

As a woman, you’re four times more likely than a man to develop osteoporosis. Women make up 80 percent of everyone with osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, and approximately one in two women 50 or older will suffer a broken bone because of it.

And even if you do everything right from early childhood through age 50, heredity still may skew your risk for osteoporosis. It’s a family disease.

Race matters

If you’re Caucasian or Asian, your risk of developing osteoporosis is greater, according to the National Institutes of Health. Hispanic and African American women carry lower but still-significant risk.

Menopausal? Your bones take a hit

With menopause comes a sharp decline in the amount of estrogen your ovaries produce. And the absence of estrogen means your bones are stripped of vital protection. It’s possible to lose as much as 25 percent of your bone mass in the decade after the onset of menopause – and that’s if you were at full capacity, so to speak, as an adult woman. By the age of 18, a woman has developed 90 percent of her bone mass. If you didn’t get enough calcium, struggled with an eating disorder or didn’t engage in much physical activity, you’ll likely be working from a deficit already.

Better nutrition means better bones

Bone loss is fastest in the years immediately following menopause, so it pays to be vigilant about vitamins. You can still stave off loss with adequate calcium intake – approximately 1,200 mg per day – and sufficient vitamin D – 600 IUs per day.

So, how do you get that? Diet, for one. Look for fruits and vegetables that are rich in calcium and vitamin D. And if you live in a climate where the sun doesn’t shine for months at a time, you may need to think about adding a supplement. Talk to your health care provider about how to maximize your calcium and vitamin D intake in the ways that work for you.

Milk – and regular exercise – do a body good

Like muscle, bone, too, gets stronger with physical activity. The NIH recommends 30 minutes daily of weight-bearing exercise such as walking, hiking, jogging, stair-climbing, weight training and tennis. You can even get your salsa, square-dance or waltz on in the name of bone betterment.

Time to break some habits

It’s not too late – not even as a 50-something woman – to turn the page on health. Smoking, for one, isn’t doing your bone health any favors and has for decades been flagged as a major risk factor. Excessive alcohol consumption also adversely affects bone health, and experts recommend limiting your intake to between one and three drinks per day. Again, talk to your health care provider about making changes that support your bone health and overall well-being. Even if you’re not ready to give it up, it’s good to start the conversation and rally some support.

We all fall down

At 50, the prospect of wiping out seems, perhaps, ridiculous. But it does happen. And as time marches on, so, too, does the likelihood of you taking a tumble. Think about mitigating your risk early on. Balance and strength factor significantly into your risk of falling, so consider yoga or tai chi as a way to strengthen your core and protect against not-so-firm footing. And if you enjoy any of the weight-bearing activities mentioned above, be sure to incorporate stretching into your routine.

Clumsiness is something to consider as well. If you’re a frequent toe-stubber or table-tripper, take a moment to survey your home environment. What’s loose and jutting? Anything you could reconfigure to make traversing your living room or kitchen less hazardous? While it’s good to feel young, it’s also important to recognize that your body isn’t as resilient as it was when you were 20 or even 30. Taking extra care now is a way to preserve good health well into your future.

What to do before the bone breaks

The thing about bones – you can’t see or feel them weakening. Often, the first signs of osteoporosis are a curving back or a broken bone. But if you want to know if you’re at risk before a bone break, consider a bone mineral density test, also called a bone density test. The test uses X-ray technology to look at your bone mass and determine if you’re in the range of concern for low bone mass, also called osteopenia, or osteoporosis. Talk to your health care provider to see if this test is right for you.

Want more tips on maintaining strong joints? Check out our checklist.

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