One of the ways in which menopause changes your body is that your bone density decreases to some extent. Almost all postmenopausal women have a condition called osteopenia that can be detected with a simple X-ray test called a Dexa-Scan. The good news, though, is that osteopenia only slightly increases your risk of fractures. And the even better news is that osteoporosis, the more advanced form of bone loss that makes you prone to broken bones and a "Dowager's hump," is not inevitable as you age. Even if osteoporosis runs in your family, there is plenty you can do to make sure your bones stay as strong as possible.
According to the Mayo Clinic, three key factors affect your bone health throughout your life:
- Whether you get adequate amounts of calcium
- Whether you get adequate amounts of vitamin D
- Whether you exercise regularly
The Food and Nutrition Board of The Institute of Medicine recommends at least 1,200 mg and no more than 2,500 mg of calcium daily for women 51 and older. Many foods are rich in calcium including dairy products, almonds, broccoli, spinach, canned salmon with the bones, sardines, and soy products. The jury is out on whether calcium supplements are beneficial, and some recent studies suggest that they may increase your chance of having a heart attack so talk to your doctor before taking them.
The optimum dose of vitamin D has not been pinpointed but experts recommend that adults should get from 400 to 1,000 International Units (IUs) per day. Just a short amount of exposure to direct sunlight a few times a week goes a long way toward allowing your body to make its own supply of Vitamin D. You can also get this nutrient by eating egg yolks and oily fish such as tuna and sardines. Fish oil tablets can help as well. Some studies have discredited Vitamin D supplements so you're better off relying on a good diet and time in the sun.
Proof positive that a sedentary lifestyle is the enemy of your bones is that when an arm or leg is in a cast, or when astronauts experience zero gravity, or when someone is bedridden, a phenomenon called skeletal unloading comes into play. If this goes on for weeks at a time, the number of bone cells plummets, the transfer into the bones of vital nutrients such as calcium and phosphorous slows down, and osteoprogenitor cells that can create new bone are not produced as rapidly. In a less dramatic but still detrimental way, your bones begin to deteriorate when you spend too much time sitting and not enough time moving.
What's so wonderful, though, is that you can actually reverse the damage by getting with an exercise program. Strength training is important for the bones in your arms and upper spine while weight-bearing exercises -- walking, running, climbing stairs, and jumping rope - target your legs, hips and lower spine. Be aware that although swimming, riding a bike, and working out on the elliptical are excellent for cardiovascular health, they don't help with bone health. Ideally, you should create a plan that includes all types of exercise for overall good health.
Beyond these basic guidelines, the Mayo Clinic also advises that you quit smoking and limit your alcohol intake since studies have shown that smoking and drinking may impair your body's ability to absorb calcium.
Now here's the kicker: Even if you already have osteoporosis and you are being treated with medication, you can help to halt the disease's progress by making the same lifestyle changes that are recommended for preventing the problem in the first place. Drink your milk, eat your fish, get some sunshine -- and most important, get moving.
Here's to stronger bones your whole life long!
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