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The Silent Disease

Osteoporosis is often called the silent disease because most people don't know they have it until they suffer a broken bone.

CBS This Morning Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy reports that guidelines from the National Osteoporosis Foundation help determine who should be tested and when.

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes severe bone loss, weakening bones and increasing the risk of fractures. This means that bones can break, in some cases with only minimal stress, such as coughing or turning over in bed.

Most often, the victim does not know he or she has osteoporosis until a bone breaks. Once an elderly person fractures a hip, it could mean a loss of independence or worse; 25 percent of people who suffer a hip fracture will not live more than one year longer.

With 28 million sufferers, Dr. Healy says just about everyone is at risk. However, there are certain specific groups at higher risk.

  • Gender counts: Women represent 80 percent of the cases of osteoporosis. They are at much greater risk than men.

  • Men are not immune, but they get it later than women do, in their 70s and 80s. One in eight men will face osteoporosis in their lifetime. It is thinner men, and those with a family history of the disease, who should be concerned.

  • Menopause: With estrogen loss during menopause, women suddenly experience a major loss of calcium.

  • Genes count: There are genetic risk factors for osteoporosis. A family history of fractures is one. Even body type is a risk factor. A small, thin woman under 120 pounds is at higher risk.

  • Age: Men and women over age 70 are at higher risk.

  • Race: Caucasian and Asian women have a higher risk for osteoporosis.

  • Lifestyle: Alcohol abuse, smoking, and a sedentary life can increase your risk for osteoporosis.

You can be tested for osteoporosis. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that if you're over age 65 and a woman, you should be tested. If you're under age 65 and you are post-menopausal and have one of the risk factors mentioned above, you should be tested. If you have had a fracture with little trauma, you should be checked out.

Prevention is possible, and should start early in life. The teenage years are not too early. There are four things to do to get more calcium in your diet:

  • You must have 1200 to 1500 milligrams of calcium every day.

  • Exercise. Weight-bearing exercise is important.

  • Do not smoke.

  • Don't abuse alcohol.

Treatment for women is dictated by how advanced the disease has become. There is growing evidence that estrogen can increase bone density. Estrogen is most effective when combined with an adequate intake of calcium, which for post-menopausal women should be at least 1200 milligrams per day. There are also alternative treatments likraloxifene, a designer estrogen. Consult your doctor.

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