Healthy bones for a lifetime

Throughout life, bone health is especially important for women, who face a higher risk of osteoporosis than men do. Get savvy about what makes your bone bank strong.

Your bones do more for you than you realize. Certainly, they give you the structure and support you need to breathe, walk, carry a heavy bag or ride a bike. And they also protect your organs, anchor your muscles, and store and supply calcium, a mineral that all body cells need. But in recent years, researchers have also discovered that the skeleton plays an important role in the endocrine system, helping to regulate your body's metabolism and sensitivity to insulin.

Throughout life, bone health is especially important for women. Osteoporosis — a disease that causes bones to become more fragile and prone to break — is twice as common in women as in men. About half of white women will develop an osteoporosis-related bone fracture at some point. To put this in perspective, that's more than the risks of breast cancer, heart attack and stroke combined. The risk of osteoporosis and fracture is somewhat lower for black, Asian and Hispanic women.

Think of your skeleton as a bone bank. Just as your financial health benefits from funds that you put aside and can draw on in times of need, your bone health can benefit from a fund of calcium and other minerals stored in your skeleton. Good bone health depends on keeping your bone bank account amply supplied with minerals that can meet your body's needs.

Your bone bank

Multimedia

Lots of transactions take place in your bone bank account. That's because your bones are living, growing tissues that are constantly changing. Throughout life, bits of old or worn-out bone are broken down and removed, and new bone is formed. This process, called remodeling, is akin to deposits and withdrawals in your bone bank account. Through this process your skeleton refurbishes and maintains itself.

During childhood and adolescence your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone, and the skeleton grows in size and density. Bone density refers to how much calcium and other minerals your bones contain. The amount of bone tissue in your skeleton (bone mass) increases rapidly. For girls, maximum bone growth takes place in the years between puberty and age 18, and peak bone density is achieved by the early to mid-30s.

But in your early 30s, things begin to change. That's when most people reach their peak bone mass — the maximum amount of bone mass achieved. After that, withdrawals begin to exceed deposits. You gradually start losing bone density in the spongy type of bone tissue (trabecular bone). Although this is normal, what's not normal is when withdrawals exceed deposits at such a rate that portions of your skeleton become weak and brittle.

How likely you are to develop osteoporosis will depend on how much bone mass you attain during your youth and how rapidly you lose it after that. The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have in the bank and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age.

Some aspects of bone mass aren't within your control. Genetic factors influence how strong and large your bones will be. And in general, women have a lower bone mass than men do. But you can take steps to ensure a healthy bone bank account. While it's important to build strong and healthy bones during childhood and adolescence, the same steps will also protect your bones during adulthood.

What does it mean to have strong bones?

Here are some terms related to bone strength and the bone bank concept.

  • Bone mass is the total amount of bone tissue in your skeleton. Think of it as the total assets in your account at any time.
  • Bone density refers to how tightly that tissue is packed — how mineral-rich your bones are. Envision dollar bills crammed into a safe deposit box. The higher your bone mineral content, the denser and stronger your bones are. When bones contain fewer minerals than normal, they eventually lose their internal supporting structure.
  • Bone strength refers to the ability of bone to withstand stress and is dependent on bone quality, including mass and density. You might compare this to your bank account's ability to handle large daily transactions. In other words, the more bone you have and the denser it is, the stronger your skeleton is — the more plentiful your bone bank account.

Having strong bones make it less likely that you'll develop osteoporosis or experience fractures.

March 09, 2017