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OSTEOPOROSIS

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After menopause, many women experience bone loss that can eventually lead to osteoporosis. Today, about 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 have osteoporosis, and many more are at risk for developing the disease. Yet, only a relatively small number of women with osteoporosis have been diagnosed or treated.

Why is this? Few women experience symptoms in the early stages of this bone-thinning disease. Also, many women believe that if they simply watch their diet and exercise regularly, they won't be affected.

Knowledge is key. The more you know about the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, the better your chances of staying active and independent. This page is designed to give you the basic facts about osteoporosis, as well as information about available tests and treatments.

Since everyone is different, you should talk to your doctor about your particular situation and what is best for you.

WHAT IS OSTEOPOROSIS?

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become more porous, gradually making them weaker and more brittle.

WHO IS AT RISK for developing osteoporosis?

Women who have gone through menopause are most at risk. Menopause usually begins when a woman is about 50, though it can occur earlier if a woman has surgery to remove her ovaries.

Other factors that may contribute to risk include:

family history of osteoporosis
Caucasian or Asian descent
thin or small build
smoking
too much alcohol
too little exercise
too little calcium (now or as a child)
certain medications, such as steriods (commonly used to treat asthma and arthritis) and thyroid hormone (if the dose is too high)
early menopause (before age 45)

Remember: Menopause is a key factor contributing to the development of osteoporosis. Even if none of these factors applies to you, if you're a woman past menopause, you may still have or develop osteoporosis.

WHAT CAUSES OSTEOPOROSIS?

Our bodies go through a continuous bone-building cycle, where old bone is broken down and new bone is formed. Osteoporosis is caused by an imbalance in this cycle, where too much bone is broken down and incompletely rebuilt. The single most important factor contributing to this imbalance is menopause. Until their mid-30s, most woman gain more bone that they lose. After that, the process usually balances out, so that bone is lost and replaced in equal amounts.

However, during menopause, hormonal changes-namely, decreasing levels of estrogen-speed up bone loss. When this bone loss becomes severe, a person will develop osteoporosis.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS?

In the early stages, osteoporosis may have few, if any, physical signs that are noticeable. However, as the disease progresses, broken bones caused by osteoporosis can occur, especially in the spine (or backbone), wrists, and hip bones.

This can lead to pain, loss of height, restricted mobility, or humped back (also known as "dowager's hump"). In later stages of the disease, patients may break their hips. Approximately half of the patients with hip fracture will be disabled, many of them permanently; and many may require long-term nursing care.

These physical effects can result in a loss of confidence and strength. They can also mean a loss of freedom, including the ability to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.

But there are ways to combat the effects of osteoporosis. One is early detection. Another is treatment.

TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT OSTEOPOROSIS

Your doctor may be able to tell from certain signs and symptoms if you have osteoporosis. It may also show up on an X-ray, though X-rays only reveal the signs of the disease if it is at a fairly advanced stage.

Ask your doctor about bone density testing.

Because osteoporosis can be so difficult to detect, your doctor may recommend a bone density test. It is the most practical way to accurately measure the density of your bones and can be useful in helping your doctor diagnose the disease, especially early on. Repeated over time, it can also help your doctor track your rate of bone loss.

There are several types of bone density test available. They are safe, painless, and noninvasive. They are also fast-some only take a few minutes.

Being tested is a good way to help your doctor determine if you have osteoporosis.

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