When most people think of osteoporosis they imagine a fragile older person with poor Vitamin D levels and insufficient calcium.
However, this is not necessarily the case, according to CEO of Osteoporosis Australia Greg Lyubomirsky, who is keen to dispel some myths about the disease.
“One of the most common myths is that osteoporosis only happens in the most elderly of populations, such as people over 80,” he tells MedAdvisor.
“But people start developing fractures after 50 years of age.”
Mr Lyubomirsky said it was also a myth that calcium and Vitamin D can prevent the disease altogether.
“They can help, but many people with high levels of calcium and Vitamin D develop osteoporosis and have fractures,” he says.
“Lifestyle factors are important, but I would not dismiss the fact that some people have a family history or genetics that make them predisposed towards the condition. And this cannot be fixed by purely preventative lifestyle measures.”
So what is osteoporosis? Essentially it is a common disease of the bones that affects an estimated 1.2 million people in Australia and further 6.3 million who suffer from low bone density.
The disease makes sufferers’ bones brittle, leading to a higher risk of breaks or “fractures”, as they’re commonly known. As bones become less dense and increasingly brittle due to osteoporosis, even a minor bump or fall can cause a serious fracture.
As Osteoporosis Australia points out, once someone starts experiencing fractures, their risk of more breaks increases, in what is referred to as the “cascade effect”.
“We know that women who have suffered a fracture in their spine are over four times more likely to have another fracture within the next year,” Mr Lyubomirsky says.
“The earlier the condition is diagnosed the more likely someone can avoid complications of the more severe fractures, such as hip fracture, which can have a big impact on their life.
“We want to make sure that early fractures, such as wrist and spine, are treated early and diagnosed correctly to prevent these more serious fractures.”
Women are at a greater risk of developing the disease earlier than men because men’s testosterone levels decline at a slower pace, meaning their bones remain denser for longer.
Post-menopausal women are at risk because once oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate.
Other factors that may contribute to the development of osteoporosis include:
- Corticosteroids medications, commonly used for asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
- Low hormone levels. In women: early menopause; in men: low testosterone.
- Thyroid conditions.
- Coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease.
- Some chronic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic liver or kidney disease.
- Some medicines for breast cancer, prostate cancer, epilepsy and some antidepressants.
“One of the features of osteoporosis is that there are so many risk factors,” Mr Lyubomirsky says.
“That is why it is so important to check your bone health and discuss the results with your doctor.”
Mr Lyubomirsky said a lack of early diagnosis was a big problem.
“We have people coming to emergency departments due to fractures from osteoporosis, but they’re not investigated for osteoporosis,” he says.
“Unfortunately, osteoporosis for quite a number of years hasn’t been a priority in many people’s minds.
“It has been associated with the ageing process and that misconception is dangerous because it means people are not getting the attention they deserve.”
Perhaps the biggest myth of all, according to Mr Lyubomirsky, is that there are no adequate solutions to osteoporosis, when in fact, there are many options, including medications.
“If detected early enough, it can lead to a reasonably free and independent life,” he says.
“Mothers can play with grandchildren without breaking their ribs and people do not become prisoners of their own house.”
Crucially, however, GPs need to take the lead and recognise any risks or conditions that may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.
“All early fractures should be investigated and bone density tests undertaken so that treatment can begin as early as possible,” he said.
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This story was written by Johanna Leggatt. Johanna is an Australian journalist with more than 15 years’ experience in both print and online. She has worked across a wide range of subject areas, including health, property, finance, interiors, and arts.