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Bone Thinning Is Preventable

Approximately 23 million American women and 5 million men have osteoporosis, and some 1.5 million fractures are associated with the bone-thinning disease each year. Fractures caused by osteoporosis are more common in women than heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer combined, and a woman's risk of having a hip fracture at some point in her life is equal to the combined risk of developing breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.

Although nearly 40% of women in their 60s have some degree of bone loss, the condition often goes unrecognized because there are no symptoms until the disease progresses to the point where fractures occur. A bone density test is the most effective method of determining whether someone has lost bone mass.

"I didn't know about the test until one of my friends told me about it," Ann-Margret says. "I had my first test last November and I had another one two weeks ago. I'm lucky. I found out that my bones are still healthy and that I don't have osteoporosis."

Rheumatologist William Sunshine, MD, medical spokesperson for the campaign, says the education effort hopes to raise awareness about bone density testing among women at risk and their doctors. He says too few physicians treating menopausal and postmenopausal women discuss osteoporosis with their patients. Sunshine is in private practice in Boca Raton, Fla.

"One problem is that we are dealing with an asymptomatic illness," he tells WebMD. "People visit their doctors with all kinds of complaints, but a patient isn't likely to come in and complain about osteoporosis. Unfortunately, when you look at a patient there is no clue to tell us if she has osteoporosis unless she already has a fracture. At that point, you are looking at the end result of the disease."

Bones are built during childhood and the teen years, and bone density is generally maintained during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Once a woman reaches menopause, however, bone mass begins to decrease. The loss can be very rapid, Sunshine says.

"The key is to build as much bone as you can during your formative years and into your postmenopausal years to protect against bone loss later on," Sunshine says. "It is the equivalent of putting money into a retirement account. When you are young you should deposit as much as you can so that when you are retired and you need to withdraw from the account, there is plenty to work with."

Bone density testing is critical, Sunshine says, because drugs are now available that not only help prevent osteoporosis, but reverse bone loss.

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