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Osteopenia: Early Signs of Bone Loss

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About 18 million Americans have osteopenia. Osteopenia refers to early signs of bone loss that can turn into osteoporosis. With osteopenia, bone mineral density is lower than normal. However, it is not yet low enough to be considered osteoporosis.

Not everyone who has osteopenia develops osteoporosis. But osteopenia can turn into osteoporosis. Osteoporosis can result in easily fractured bones and other very serious bone problems. When it is advanced, it can also cause disfigurement (from fractures in the spine) and lead to loss of mobility and independence, especially if the hip is fractured.

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How Is Osteopenia Diagnosed?

Bone health is measured by bone density, which indicates the amount of minerals, such as calcium, in your bones. A higher bone density indicates stronger bones.

To determine bone density, your health care provider will usually do a DXA bone scan.

The amount of bone you have usually peaks around age 30. Then it begins to decline. Your body starts to reabsorb bone faster than new bone can be made.

With aging, your body reabsorbs calcium and other minerals from your bones. This reabsorption can make your bones weaker and lead to osteopenia and osteoporosis. The bones become more vulnerable to fractures and other damage.

What Are Some Risk Factors for Osteopenia and Osteoporosis?

Risk factors for developing osteopenia are the same as those for developing osteoporosis. They include:

  • being female
  • being thin and/or having a small frame
  • getting too little calcium in the diet
  • smoking
  • leading an inactive lifestyle
  • a history of anorexia nervosa
  • a family history of osteoporosis
  • heavy alcohol consumption
  • early menopause

Most people with osteopenia don't know they have it. In fact, the first sign may be a broken bone. A broken bone may mean that the condition has already become osteoporosis.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Self-Test: Check Your Risk.

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