Osteoporosis — What are your risks?

Some osteoporosis risk factors, such as older age, can't be changed. But others are things you can control.

You might not think of bones as being alive, but they are. Every day, your body breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone. As you get older, however, the ratio becomes unequal: more bone is lost than gained. If too much is lost, then you can develop the bone disease osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis can cause bones to become weak, brittle and prone to break. Due to loss of bone tissue, bones that were once dense and strong can be unable to withstand the stress of even normal activity, such as bending over or coughing. Osteoporosis-related fractures most commonly occur in the spine, wrist and hip. In addition to bone fractures, osteoporosis can cause bone pain, loss of height and a stooped posture. All of these symptoms can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.

No one can say for sure which individuals will develop osteoporosis. But research has revealed what makes some people more likely than others to develop it. That's why it's important to be aware of the risk factors — and what you can do about them.

Bone health basics

Generally speaking, the risk of developing osteoporosis and being more prone to bone fractures depends on your bone health — the size and strength of your bones and the condition of your bone tissue. Bone health is a result of how well your skeleton developed during childhood and early adulthood, as well as your peak bone mass — the maximum amount of bone tissue you have. Most people achieve peak bone mass in their late 20s to early 30s. Bone health is also affected by how rapidly bone mass is lost as you get older.

Risk factors that can't be changed

Some risk factors for osteoporosis, such as your age and family history, aren't things you can control. But just because you're at risk doesn't mean you will get the disease. You can monitor your bone health for early signs of abnormal bone loss and take steps to prevent osteoporosis or to slow its development.

These are common risk factors for osteoporosis:

Age. The older you are, the more likely you are to develop osteoporosis and the more likely you are to break a bone because of it. After you've reached your peak bone mass, it's normal to begin losing a small percentage of bone mass each year. This happens because new bone formation slows with age, while bone breakdown stays the same or increases. The internal structure of bones also begins to weaken, and the outer shell thins.

Gender. Women usually have lower peak bone mass than men do. Women also tend to live longer. So, in effect, women have less bone to lose but more time to lose it. In addition, during menopause, women experience a drop in estrogen levels, which usually accelerates bone loss. Osteoporosis is most common among postmenopausal women.

Ethnicity. Caucasians and Asians are at greater risk of osteoporosis; Hispanics and Native Americans appear to have an intermediate risk, while African-Americans have the lowest risk. These various levels of risk are based in part on differences in bone mass and bone density.

Genetics. Family history is a strong predictor of low bone mass. If your mother, sister, grandmother or aunt has osteoporosis, then you're at greater risk. But remember that having a family history of low bone mass doesn't automatically mean the same thing will happen to you. By taking steps to lower your risk, osteoporosis can be prevented.

Body frame size. Men and women with small body frames tend to have a higher risk because they usually have less bone mass to draw from as they age.

March 09, 2017 See more In-depth