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    Calcium: Gotta Have It for Healthy Bones

    Milk and other calcium-rich foods are an important part of a bone-healthy lifestyle that can not only reduce the risk of fractures as you get older, but may also protect against certain cancers.

    Importance of Vitamin D continued...

    As a bone-building ingredient, don't overlook protein in your diet either, Watts advises. While very high levels of protein may cause "calcium-wasting," Watts says that researchers have found that hip fracture patients who were given a mild protein supplement were released from the hospital sooner than those who weren't.

    "It's like a symphony orchestra," says Robert P. Heaney, MD, John A. Creighton University Professor and professor of medicine at Creighton University. "If you don't take in enough protein [Heaney recommends 62 grams a day], then calcium alone, or even with vitamin D, won't do the trick," he says. "It's the sum of the parts that's important, not the individual elements alone."

    Exercise and Sunshine Part of the Program

    Those elements include not only diet, but exercise and sunlight as well, Donadio says.

    Those who exercise on a "regular and ongoing" basis have a significantly lower risk of osteoporosis, says Donadio, who recommends walking for at least 30 minutes a day, and preferably outdoors to get the benefits of sunlight, which provides natural vitamin D. Strength training, movement techniques such as tai chi (which improves balance and coordination, thereby reducing the risk of falls), even sexual activity can improve your bone health by increasing your estrogen levels.

    The less stress you feel, the better, Donadio says, since stress hormones, especially cortisol, deplete calcium reserves.

    Are You at Risk of Osteoporosis?

    Are you at risk for developing osteoporosis? The National Osteoporosis Foundation lists these risk factors:

    • Age. The older you are, the greater your risk of osteoporosis as your bones become weaker and less dense.
    • Gender. Men can develop osteoporosis, but the condition is more prevalent in women. Women lose bone more rapidly than men because of hormonal changes related to menopause.
    • Family/Personal History. If your mother has a history of vertebral fractures, you may be more susceptible to osteoporosis as well. If you have suffered a fracture yourself as an adult, your risk is also greater for future fractures.
    • Race. White and Asian women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than African-American and Hispanic women (although they, too, are at risk).
    • Bone Structure and Body Weight. If you're small-boned and thin (under 127 pounds) you're at greater risk.
    • Menopause/Menstrual History. Normal or early menopause (brought about naturally or surgically) increases your chances of developing osteoporosis. Women who stop menstruating before menopause because of conditions such as anorexia or bulimia, or because of excessive physical exercise, may also lose bone tissue and develop osteoporosis.
    • Lifestyle. Cigarette smoking, drinking too much alcohol, consuming an inadequate amount of calcium, or getting little or no weight-bearing exercise increases your chances of developing osteoporosis.
    • Medications /Chronic Diseases. Medications used to treat chronic medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, endocrine disorders (such as an underactive thyroid), seizure disorders, and gastrointestinal diseases may have side effects that can damage bone and lead to osteoporosis.

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    Reviewed on April 18, 2008

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