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Few Treated for Osteoporosis; Many at Risk

New Options Available to Prevent Broken Bones Caused by Osteoporosis

WebMD Health News

March 26, 2004 -- Bent backs and broken bones don't have to be a normal part of aging. Researchers say recent advances in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis not only slow the bone-thinning disease, but they can also help rebuild your bones.

The problem is, only a fraction of those at risk for the disease are ever screened for osteoporosis, and most learn they have the disease only after suffering a broken hip or spine. Worse yet, when someone suffers a major fracture, only about one in five are offered treatment by their doctors that might reduce their risk of future fractures.

To help clear up this confusion on osteoporosis and the risk of broken bones, the American Federation for Aging Research sponsored a briefing with several osteoporosis experts today in New York City.

"Most people think of bone as something static, but it's really a lot like your bank account," says Jesse Roth, MD, who moderated the briefing. "There are a lot of deposits and withdrawals being made, even though the balance may stay the same."

Roth says the same applies to your bones because a constant process of bone remodeling occurs with mineral deposits being added and removed. As people age, the deposits slow down and the withdrawals speed up, which causes the bones to weaken and leads to osteoporosis.

As researchers have gained a better understanding of this process, new treatments have emerged recently that can help keep your bone's balance in the black and out of the red.

"The target of today's osteoporosis drugs is to up the positive side or slow the withdrawal, says Roth, who is geriatrician-in-chief at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.

Who's At Risk for Osteoporosis?

"We're dealing with a very common disorder that has very significant potential effect on people's lives," says Stuart Weinerman, MD, director of the metabolic bone disease program at Long Island Jewish Health System. "An estimated 40% of postmenopausal women are at risk for suffering a major fracture of the spine of hip caused by osteoporosis in their lifetime."

Although women face a greater risk of developing osteoporosis, Weinerman says men's risk tends to be underappreciated. For example, one out of every five osteoporosis-related hip fractures occurs in man.

But the good news is, doctors have a very effective tool to screen for osteoporosis, known as a bone mineral density test. The test takes about five to 10 minutes to complete at a doctor's office and uses low X-ray energy scans to measure bone density.

"The test can be very predictive of who is going to break a bone in the near future. Better, for instance, than blood pressure is predictive of future stroke," says Weinerman.

Although guidelines vary slightly, it's generally accepted that the following groups should be screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test:

  • Nearly all women over age 65
  • Postmenopausal women with at least one other risk factor for osteoporosis, such as a family member with the disease, smokers, or those who drink heavily
  • Older men who have had a previous bone fracture or low testosterone
  • Anyone on long-term steroid medication, which can weaken bones

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