Osteoporosis and prevention of fractures in the elderly.

A walk on the beach in Maui. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A walk on the beach in Maui. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Recently, I came across a good article on osteoporosis and prevention of fractures in the elderly written by Dr. Erika Dempsey, clinical assistant professor with the University of Calgary (MD Scope, March 7, 2019).

Osteoporosis is a condition in which there is loss of calcium and a gradual softening of the bones that make them fragile.

Osteoporosis leads to an increased incidence of fractures resulting from low impact injury. Sometimes no injury is involved in case of spontaneous fractures of vertebrae. Believe it or not, 80 per cent of all fractures in patients over the age of 50 are thought to be related to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis affects more women than men because of hormonal (estrogen) changes at menopause. This causes bone loss and softening.

There are several reasons why we should control osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is exceedingly costly, both for the patient and the health care system. Osteoporosis Canada estimates that acute care for patients with hip fractures alone will cost Alberta over $62 million in 2020. 

This does not include increased costs of care after discharge. Roughly a quarter of the patients with hip fractures will require institutional care on a long-term basis. A person with hip and spinal fracture may die from medical and/or surgical complications. One-year post-operative death for hip fracture patients is 25 to 30 per cent.

Should individuals over 50 be on vitamin D and calcium supplements?

Both calcium and physical activity are important to build and maintain strong bones. Ingesting the recommended daily amounts of calcium primarily through dietary sources and staying physically active appear to be the best approaches to limit your fracture risk.

Sometimes we forget how regular exercise builds strong bones.

We need vitamin D to absorb calcium. Vitamin D enhances absorption of calcium.

Vitamin D is necessary for building and maintaining healthy bones. That’s because calcium, the primary component of bone, can only be absorbed by your body when vitamin D is present. Your body makes vitamin D when direct sunlight converts a chemical in your skin into an active form of the vitamin.

Vitamin D isn’t found in many foods, but you can get it from fortified milk, fortified cereal, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.

Dr. Dempsey suggests treatment of osteoporosis should be accompanied by vitamin D supplementation (800-2000 IU daily) and 1200 mg/day of (preferably dietary) calcium. Do not start these pills without consulting your family doctor.

If the osteoporosis begins before menopause then estrogen loss alone cannot account for the changes. Other causes of osteoporosis for men and women are: long-term use of cortisone, smoking, heavy drinking, sedentary lifestyle, low body weight and medical conditions that affect absorption, such as celiac disease. Diagnosis of osteoporosis is made by measuring bone mineral density.

The current national guidelines recommend the test for osteoporosis (measuring bone mineral density) should be done every two to three years.

How to prevent hip fractures?

All individuals over the age of 50 should consult their doctors and seek advice. General recommendations are: get enough calcium and vitamin D, do regular exercise to strengthen bones and improve balance. Do weight-bearing exercises, and do walking that helps you maintain peak bone density for more years. Avoid smoking or excessive drinking.

Walking has other advantages. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” says Friedrich Nietzsche. Let us walk and change the world!

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