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Sally Field: An Osteoporosis Story

The actress known for playing strong women tells of her battle against a bone-thinning disease.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Actress Sally Field always thought of herself as a strong woman -- an image often reflected in her award-winning movie roles. Dazzling us with Academy Award performances in films like Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, she became a signature actress for an emerging generation of equally strong women.

Indeed, even from her early days of TV stardom in comedies like Gidget and The Flying Nun, and later when tickling our funny bone in films like Steel Magnolia, she never failed to personify the baby boom generation at its best.

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But recently, something happened that threatened to weaken Field's resolve, not to mention her hopes for what she calls "a great third act."

The 'Silent' Disease

Just shy of her 60th birthday, Field was diagnosed with osteoporosisosteoporosis -- a serious bone-thinning disorder that dramatically affects the risk of bone fractures. It is often referred to as the 'silent disease' because you can have no symptoms until you experience a fracture.

"I always knew I fit the risk profile. I was thin, small boned, Caucasian, and heading towards age 60. But I was amazed at how quickly a woman could go from being at risk to having full-fledged osteoporosis," says the still-petite brunette.

On the outside this vibrant actress remained an active sports enthusiast -- "hiking, biking, and doing extreme yoga on a regular basis," she says. But inside, a bone scan showed her hips and spine had started thinning.

"My bones appeared to be getting steadily thinner without any signs or symptoms I could see or feel," Field tells WebMD.

Osteoporosis: How It Happens

According to Steve Goldstein, MD, when we are young the process of bone building outpaces that of bone loss, which is why our skeleton remains healthy and strong. Bone mass peaks in early adulthood. As we age, however, he says the process begins to reverse.

"The older you get the more bone loss speeds up and bone building slows down," says Goldstein, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Medical Center in New York City. So, the older we get, he says, the thinner our bones will be.

In women, however, the process of loss is accelerated further, thanks to the dramatic drop in estrogen that occurs at the time of menopausemenopause. What's the link?

"Estrogen is what is known as a 'resorptive.' It actually helps slow bone loss from occurring," says Goldstein.

Unfortunately, when levels plummet -- as they do during menopause -- bone loss speeds up, leaving many women at high risk for osteoporosis.

For awhile, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) came to the rescue. In fact, it worked so well that in addition to recommending it for hot flasheshot flashes and mood swings, many doctors regularly prescribed estrogen for its bone-protecting qualities.

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