If you're one of the 34 million Americans (women and men) who are at risk for the disease, you know that strengthening and protecting your bones is crucial. Osteoporosis means porous bones that weaken and can fracture with even minor incidents.
Some 55% of people 50 and older have osteoporosis or reduced bone mass. But "you can live with osteoporosis for a long, long time and never have complications such as fractures -- if you take certain precautions," says Felicia Cosman, MD, osteoporosis expert and medical director of the clinical research center at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, N.Y.
Osteoporosis is often called the "silent disease," because most of the time, bone loss occurs without any symptoms at all. But when osteoporosis becomes severe, it can lead to fractures and a condition called kyphosis. Kyphosis is a deformity resulting from spinal compression fractures, sometimes described as the "dowager's hump." Both fractures and kyphosis can be very painful. This pain is usually more severe than the typical "aches and pains" many people feel as they get older.
"Aerobic activity as well as strength training -- using weight machines, free weights, or elastic bands or just [doing] calisthenics -- can increase bone strength and reduce the risk of falling by improving balance and coordination," she says. (If you've had a major fracture, check with your doctor before doing any exercise.)
"I have one patient with osteoporosis who never exercised in her life, embarked on a gym program, and felt dramatically better after a few years," Cosman says. "She was much stronger, had better balance, and reduced her number of falls. She really helped herself."
Get plenty of calcium, a major building block of bone tissue. "Calcium gives bone its hardness and is very important for bone strength." Aim for 1,000 milligrams of dietary calcium per day if you're younger than 50 or a man age 50 to 70. Women age 50 and older and men age 71 and older need a total of 1,200 milligrams daily, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. That translates to three servings of high-calcium foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, or calcium-fortified citrus juice or cereal.
Preventing Falls With Osteoporosis
Go through your home and remove tripping hazards like throw rugs, curtain cords, and electrical wires. Keep hallways and bathrooms well lit, and install safety handles on the bathtub. Ask someone else to retrieve hard-to-reach items, Cosman advises.
One recent study found that practicing tai chi reduced the risk of falls in older adults by almost half.