Low bone density and osteoporosis

Published December 14, 2021

Low bone density means your bones are more porous than normal. People with osteoporosis have very low bone density. Bones become weak and fragile and can be more susceptible to fractures. Find out how you can help keep your bones healthy to support an active lifestyle.

3 things you need to know about low bone density and osteoporosis

  • Getting enough exercise, vitamin D and calcium is essential build strong bones that will support you now and into the future.1
  • Osteoporosis may not have any symptoms until a bone injury occurs, and is diagnosed by your doctor after a bone scan.
  • Around 1.2 million Australians have osteoporosis, and 6.3 million have low bone density.

What is low bone density and osteoporosis?

  • People with low bone density have an increased risk of bone injury. Your GP will likely recommend you take action to build up your bones by ensuring adequate calcium intake, vitamin D levels and sufficient exercise. If bone loss continues, it may lead to osteoporosis.3
  • People with osteoporosis have even lower bone density. This means you have a high risk of bone injury, and your GP may prescribe a suitable medicine, in addition to ensuring adequate calcium, vitamin D and exercise.3
  • A bone density scan is the best way for your doctor to tell whether you have low bone density or osteoporosis.1

What causes osteoporosis?

  • The bones you have now are not the same ones that you had 10 years ago! Bones constantly renew themselves to stay strong and healthy; old bone is removed and replaced with new bone.3
  • If bone renewal becomes unbalanced, more bone is removed than is replaced, leaving bones weaker and more porous. Over time, this can lead to low bone density and subsequently osteoporosis.3
  • It’s important to consider your bone health at every stage of life, and optimise this constant renewal process by making sure you get enough calcium, vitamin D and exercise.1

What are the symptoms of osteoporosis?

  • You can’t feel your bones getting weaker, so osteoporosis on its own often doesn’t have any symptoms. That’s why it is referred to as a ‘silent disease’.1
  • Symptoms, such as pain and loss of mobility, only happen when osteoporosis has already led to a bone injury, so early diagnosis by a doctor is important.

Talk to your doctor if you think you might be at risk for osteoporosis.

Who is at risk for osteoporosis?

Adapted from Ebeling et al. 2013.5

  • Bones reach their peak density at around the age of 30 years4
  • Osteoporosis is most common in older men and women. Women may develop osteoporosis from the age of 50, after menopause, while men’s bones may stay strong until later in life.2
  • Other factors that affect bone health include:

Things you can’t change1,5

  • Family history – osteoporosis runs in families, so if your parents or siblings have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, you could be at risk.
  • Medical history – some diseases and medications can affect bone density

Things you can change1,5

  • Low levels of calcium and vitamin D
  • Low levels of physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Weight (too thin or overweight

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

  • Your doctor will discuss your risk factors and may refer you for a bone density test (called a DXA scan1,5).
  • Your doctor may also measure your height, and order an x-ray (to check for bone fractures) and blood tests (to see if you have any medical causes for osteoporosis).1
  • A bone density scan is a simple scan that measures the density of your bones, usually at the hip and spine. You simply lie on a padded table and the arm of the machine passes over your body. The scan takes approximately 15 minutes.1
  • The scan results will be provided to your doctor who can advise you whether you have normal bone density, low bone density or osteoporosis.

How can I minimise my risk of osteoporosis?

Whether you are a teenager, a senior or somewhere in-between, you can take action
now to maintain and improve your bone health.

Osteoporosis & exercise

  • Bones become stronger when a certain amount of impact or strain is placed on them.1,5
  • Exercising for strong bones and an active lifestyle is important throughout life:
    • Children: High impact weight-bearing exercises (e.g. jumping, skipping) helps growing bones become as strong as possible to minimise the impact of bone loss as we get older.1,4
    • Adults: Resistance training (e.g. weight lifting) together with moderate impact weight-bearing activities (e.g. jogging, brisk walk, stair climbing) are most effective for maintaining bone strength and slowing bone loss.1,4
    • Seniors: weight-bearing exercise with progressive resistance training and challenging balance and mobility exercises can help to slow bone loss and build muscle to improve balance and coordination. For older adults with balance issues, it is important to follow your healthcare professional’s instruction for balance exercises, to minimise the risk of a fall.1,4
  • To get the most from exercise it should be1:
    • Regular
    • Challenging
    • Progressively more difficult
    • Varied

Osteoporosis & healthy eating

Getting enough calcium at every stage of life is essential to build and maintain strong bones.1,4

Osteoporosis & vitamin D

Getting enough vitamin D is important to help your body absorb calcium. Vitamin D is usually obtained by exposing the skin to sunlight.1,6

Osteoporosis & supplements

  • If you cannot get enough calcium from your diet alone, you may wish to take calcium supplements.1
  • If you do not get enough sunlight on your skin, you may wish to take vitamin D supplements. There are not many foods that are rich in Vitamin D.
  • Combination supplements can be a convenient way to meet both your calcium and your vitamin D requirements.
  • Supplements vary in dose and formulation, so it’s important to find the right one for you.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether you might benefit from calcium and/or vitamin D supplements, and which one is right for you.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for information purposes only. Please consult your health professional if you have further concerns or questions related to low bone density or osteoporosis.

References available on request.

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