What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones lose their strength and thickness (density), leading to a higher risk of fractures than normal. Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals such as calcium more quickly than the body can replace them.1 Calcium is a major structural element of bones, so any great loss will lead to a reduction in bone density. As a result, bones become weaker, more fragile and can break more easily, even with a minor bump or fall.

Osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones’ or ‘bones with holes’. If you were to look at a healthy bone under the microscope it will have a honeycomb-like structure. In contrast, if you have osteoporosis, your bones will have holes and spaces in the honeycomb that are much larger than normal.2 Any bone can be affected by osteoporosis, but bones of the hip, spine and wrist are the most commonly affected sites.1

Osteoporosis is common

Osteoporosis is a common skeletal condition, with around 700,000 current doctor-diagnosed cases across Australia.3 More than eight out of 10 of these are women and most are aged 55 and over.3Allowing for undiagnosed cases, the numbers could be a lot higher. Osteoporosis is largely a ‘silent disease’ that does not show any obvious signs and symptoms. Most people do not realise they have osteoporosis until a fracture occurs, which means that many cases go undiagnosed.2

Osteoporosis risk factors

There are many factors that predispose an individual to osteoporosis. Although women are at a greater risk of developing the condition, most of the main risk factors apply to men as well.

Risk factors include:

  • Menopause – When oestrogen levels decrease with menopause, bones lose calcium at a much faster rate1 which is why osteoporosis is more common in women
  • Family history of osteoporosis or fractures1
  • Inadequate calcium intake4
  • Low vitamin D levels4
  • Cigarette smoking4
  • High alcohol and/or caffeine intake4
  • A sedentary lifestyle4
  • Long-term use of some medicines including corticosteroids1
  • Low testosterone – The hormone testosterone helps maintain strong bones in men but testosterone levels fall in some men due to age, and certain medicines and health conditions, leading to an increased risk of developing osteoporosis and breaking a bone5

Osteoporosis is largely preventable

Although some of the risk factors cannot be changed, men and women of all ages can take steps to support their bone health and reduce their chances of developing osteoporosis by:

  • Ensuring they eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of calcium-rich foods. Where dietary calcium intake is inadequate, a calcium supplement may be needed
  • Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption
  • Exercising regularly, particularly weight-bearing and strength training activities
  • Making sure vitamin D levels are sufficient. If sunlight exposure is inadequate then a vitamin D supplement may be needed

Diagnosis of osteoporosis

If your doctor thinks you are at risk of osteoporosis he/she may recommend measuring your bone density via a DXA (dual-energy absorptiometry) scan.4The diagnosis of osteoporosis is made when a person’s bone mineral density is much lower than it should be.