How to Prevent Bone Loss as You Age

Drawing of woman with x-ray of pelvis

Graphic by KCM

There’s more to healthy bones than drinking milk.

As we age, questions about health seem to crop up quickly. How do we sign up for Medicare? What should we do to keep our minds sharp? How do we maintain strong bones? And what is a DXA scan?

For women, in particular, there is one crucial item on this list that we shouldn’t ignore — preventing bone loss. While bone loss impacts everyone as they age, women begin to lose bone density at a younger age than men, and this loss accelerates during and after menopause.

The good news is, when it comes to bone loss, preventive care can make all the difference. With the help of our partners at Hologic, we’re answering some of the most common questions about bone density, sharing great tips on maintaining bone mass, and explaining how a DXA scan can identify signs of brittle bones before you suffer a break.

What is bone density, and why does it matter? 

Bone density is the amount of bone mineral people have in their bone tissue. If bone density is low, it can lead to osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle, and can easily break or fracture.  

How do age and gender impact bone mass? 

As we age, we slowly begin to lose more bone mass than we build. This happens more acutely in women, particularly after menopause, because estrogen helps to maintain bone density. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue for men, too — men start to lose bone mass at around age 50, and by around age 70, men and women lose bone mass at about the same rate. If you notice any changes in your posture or are feeling pain that’s not from a previous strain or injury, it’s probably a good time to talk to your doctor. 

What factors contribute to bone loss?  

There are a number of factors that can contribute to bone loss. Some are genetic, while others are related to lifestyle.  

Genetic factors include: 

  • Gender 
  • Age 
  • Race: Caucasian women and Asian women are at the highest risk for osteoporosis 
  • Certain medical conditions 
  • Family history of osteopenia or osteoporosis 

Lifestyle factors include: 

  • Prolonged low calcium intake
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Other factors that might weaken bone density are a low BMI (body mass index) and certain medications including some blood thinners, certain immunosuppressants, and anti-inflammatory drugs, and some medications to treat cancer. If you’re concerned that a medication you’re on might be impacting your bone mass, talk to your doctor.  

When do women start to lose bone mass? 

Women start to experience bone loss at around age 30 — this is the point at which the body reabsorbs bone more quickly than it makes it. The rate of bone loss increases rapidly for women after menopause — in fact, a woman can lose up to 20 percent of her bone density during the first five to seven years following menopause. In the U.S., one in two women over the age of 50 will sustain an osteoporosis fracture, which is why early detection is so important.  

How do you know if you have low bone mass?  

It’s pretty easy to figure out how you’re faring when it comes to bone density. Your doctor can order a test called a DXA scan, a bone imaging test to assess your risk for osteoporosis and fractures. The test determines your bone mineral density (BMD), which is compared to two norms: a T-score (that of a young, healthy adult) and a Z-score (adults of your same age, sex, race, height, and weight).  

A DXA scan, which uses a low-dose X-ray to analyze your spine and hips, is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a bone break happens. It’s a non-invasive and painless procedure that takes only about three minutes. It’s also covered by most insurance plans.  

When should I get a DXA scan? 

Most women should get a DXA scan after menopause, and men should get one after the age of 50. If you’ve got a family history of osteoporosis or if you’ve recently broken a bone, talk to your doctor to see if you should get scanned earlier. 

Your primary care provider can help you find and schedule a DXA scan near you. If you’re unsure of what to ask your doctor, Hologic has a handy guide to help guide the conversation.  

What can you do to maintain bone mass as you age? 

Although the thought of losing bone mass can be scary, there are a few easy ways to help slow the process.  

The first is to make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D and calcium, which work together to help you maintain bone mass. Calcium helps build and maintain new bone, while vitamin D helps your body to effectively absorb the calcium. The easiest way to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium is by adding vitamin D-rich foods like salmon, sardines, and fortified orange juice into your diet. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products, dark-green leafy vegetables, and calcium-fortified beverages like almond and soy milk. 

Regular weight-bearing exercise is also crucial to maintaining bone mass as you age. This can be anything from weight training or jogging to lower-impact exercise like walking. It doesn’t have to be vigorous, you just have to make it a regular part of your routine. Yoga can also improve your balance, which will help you to avoid falls that could lead to bone fractures or breaks.  

Make sure to check with your healthcare provider before you make any significant changes to your diet or before starting a new exercise program. If you do develop osteoporosis, your doctor may recommend a drug that slows bone loss. 

Even if you take all of the right steps to maintain bone density, fractures and breaks can still happen. One way to decrease the likelihood of falling is to fall-proof your home. You can do this by making simple changes, like putting down rubber-backed rugs, adding contrasting strips of color to your stairs to help with spatial awareness, adding more light to your home (make sure to ask someone to help you change those hard-to-reach lightbulbs!), and reorganizing your kitchen to store your most commonly-used items within reach.  

Aging is a blessing, so don’t let bone loss slow you down. Talk to your doctor about getting a DXA scan and whether any major lifestyle changes are right for you.