The big 5-0 is a landmark for most people, but it's also a time that can have implications for bone health. Here's some background: Nearly 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and 34 million are at risk for it. It's debilitating and causes bones to become so weak and brittle that simply bending over or coughing can cause a fracture. Every year there are about 1.5 million osteoporosis-related fractures.
Now let's take a look at why age 50 may be the new 60 for those at risk for osteoporosis. In 2002 the U. S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women who were at high risk for osteoporosis be screened at age 60. Recently that age was lowered to 50.
The earlier screening age could be a double-edged sword, though. Here’s why: Earlier screening may lead to earlier detection, prevention and damage control, but earlier screening could also indicate false positive test results and unnecessary prescription medications—some of which are downright health-threatening. For example, a popular family of osteoporosis drugs called bisphosphonates can actually weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures, including thigh bone breakage.
Dr. Kenneth Egol of New York University is witnessing this trend firsthand. He says, "We are seeing thigh fractures in people just walking, walking down steps, and in patients who are doing low-energy exercise.” He says that the injuries appear similar to those you would normally see in car accidents than from a minor fall. He notes that the femur (or thigh bone) is one of the strongest bones in the body. It’s a pattern he calls very unusual.
It's also very disturbing.
Researchers from New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center echo Egol. They found that of 70 people who were admitted to the hospital’s Level 1 trauma center for thigh bone fractures, 59 were women and 25 were taking a bisphosphonate alendronate drug. Of the 20 people who suffered a stress fracture due to little or no trauma, 19 were taking this drug. The researchers found a definite correlation between fractures and this supposed bone-supporting drug.
That’s not all. They also found that those who use bisphosponates for more than five years may be predisposed to breaking their femurs. Why? The drugs are designed to disrupt the body’s natural bone-maintenance mechanisms, which researchers say undermines the skeleton’s ability to regenerate.
Orthopedic trauma surgeon Joseph Lane agrees. He says, “When people are on these bone drugs for five, six, seven or eight years, they lose their ability to remodel and regenerate their skeleton. Some women are very vulnerable, and they will then develop problems of brittle bones.”
Bisphosphonates, particularly alendronate, are popular and doctors often prescribe them to women considered at risk for osteoporosis, but they're linked to musculoskeletal pain and jaw unhealth known as osteonecrosis or "bone death.”
You see? That presents a grave problem for women getting screened younger who register false positive test results and are given osteoporosis prescriptions. In fact, it presents a problem for those who are screened earlier, have correct test results, and are prescribed osteoporosis medications. The consequences could be devastating.
I think a much healthier alternative is to support bone health by eating a diet high in calcium and vitamin D as well as magnesium and vitamin K. Regular weight-bearing exercises like walking, dancing, climbing stairs, hiking or resistance training exercises like weights or resistance bands can help strengthen bones too.
There’s really no downside to this dietary and lifestyle approach to bone health—even if you’re the big 5-0.