Many confuse osteopenia and osteoporosis, and while both are bone diseases and linked, they have some differences. Think of osteopenia as on the continuum between having strong, healthy bones and having weakened and easily fractured osteoporotic bones. A bone density test will show whether your bones are solid and robust, or are now weakened by osteopenia, or if your bone loss is so advanced, you now have osteoporosis. Bone density testing is painless and much like an x-ray. This test measures the calcium and other minerals in bones; the examination will reveal if you have osteopenia.
Osteopenia is the weakening of bones, and while a small amount of bone loss can be expected as we get older, osteopenia means bone loss is significant. When osteopenia happens, bones become porous, brittle, and fracture easily. Risk factors include having a small-boned frame, estrogen deficiency, and advanced age. Poor nutrition and a lack of weight-bearing exercise are linked as significant causes of osteopenia. If you smoke, drink too much alcohol, and have a poor diet, you increase your risk of developing osteopenia. By eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and living a healthy smoke-free lifestyle, many can avoid the risks associated with osteopenia.
I learned of my own osteopenia several years ago, and it came as a shock. I was relieved to understand that there are many lifestyle changes that I could make right away. While I couldn’t change my age, race, small frame, or heritage, I revamped my diet to increase my calcium and Vitamin D intake. I was already exercising and strength training. Still, I chose to increase the level of weight training that I was doing to strengthen my bones as much as possible.
I am have never been a smoker, which does increase the risk, so I did not have to face the difficult task of quitting smoking. I also keep in mind my alcohol use; and remind myself that it’s in the best interest of my overall health to keep it to a minimum. Soda pops and other carbonated drinks also increase the risk of bone loss, so I keep those to a minimum as well. Although some of the risk factors of osteopenia are unavoidable, sound nutrition and regular weight-bearing exercise are great ways to reduce your own risk.
Like high blood pressure, osteopenia can happen without feeling or seeing any changes in your body, as this disease happens without symptoms. However, bone loss does occur over several years, and one of the first possible signs of osteopenia is often a broken bone after a very slight injury to that bone. So, you may have a fracture that happened from otherwise minor damage and then learn that the fracture happened because you have osteopenia. Sadly, the disease may already be quite advanced at this stage. I know from my own experience that being diagnosed with osteopenia came as a shock. A bone density test will reveal your bone mass; if you are concerned, talk to your health care team about assessing your risk and your need for a bone density test.
A diagnosis of osteopenia should encourage you to make some lifestyle updates and improve your habits through healthier nutrition and weight-bearing exercise. Your intake of Calcium and Vitamin D is critical to managing your osteopenia well. In addition, make sure you take in adequate protein; protein plays a crucial role in building and repairing bones. Talk to your doctor or a Registered Dietician to evaluate your diet; your diet should completely meet your bone health needs. These experts can also advise if you need a bone density test. The key to managing osteopenia well and avoiding its possible development into osteoporosis is through nutrition and exercise. By sticking to a healthier lifestyle, you can help to keep your bones as healthy as possible.