In her late 60s, Gladys was pursuing her MA in clinical psychology to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a counselor. Just as she was finishing up her schooling, her world turned upside down when a minor fall in the bathroom left her with a badly broken leg. Instead of spending the next year focusing on her new practice, Gladys had no choice, but to concentrate on a painful recovery. A scan at the hospital after the fall revealed she had osteoporosis, the root cause of the severe fracture she endured.
Sadly, her story is not unique. Over 53 million Americans are already suffering from osteoporosis or struggling with low bone mass — which puts them at a high risk of developing the condition. It’s a silent disease, meaning there aren’t obvious signs or symptoms to signal that someone is suffering from it. Instead, one’s bones slowly and imperceptibly lose density, becoming weaker over time. This increases your aging loved one’s susceptibility to fractures, even from minor falls or bumps. A broken bone can have a major impact on the quality of your loved one’s life, taking them away from what they love to do. Fortunately, it’s possible to take proactive measures against osteoporosis, and help prevent it in the first place.
Signs Your Loved One May Be at Risk for Osteoporosis
Finding out whether your loved one is predisposed to developing osteoporosis can help you cut the disease off at the head. Since the symptoms are relatively invisible, looking at the risk factors is one of your best bets to determine how urgently you may need to approach preventative measures.
It can also be helpful to keep in mind that osteoporosis typically affects women more than men. In fact, around 25% of women over age 65 have the disease, compared with 6% of their male counterparts. With that said, take a look at these other possible risk factors that can contribute to osteoporosis:
Illnesses or Physical Issues
- Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s
- Kidney or liver disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Low estrogen levels in women
- Early onset of menopause
Dietary or Lifestyle Issues
- Low body weight, or suffering from an eating disorder
- Limited mobility, or too little exercise
- Not enough Vitamin D or calcium
- Smoking or excessive drinking
Hereditary or Medical Issues
- Other family members have osteoporosis
- Other family members have had hip fractures
- On steroid medication, such as prednisone
- Height has shrunk significantly
- Easily suffers broken bones, especially wrist, hip, or along the spine
The Not So Obvious Dangers of Osteoporosis
In addition to the physical consequences, a diagnosis of osteoporosis can take an emotional toll on your aging loved one too. They might experience bouts of depression, anxiety, or frustration caused by effects of the disease. Osteoporosis sufferers may feel scared of doing normal activities for fear of injury — even leaving their home can feel risky. This can diminish your loved one’s drive to remain active and social, and eventually lead to isolation.
It’s also common for people, especially women, to blame themselves for their condition. They might feel it’s their own fault for not taking better care of their bodies, and feel angry at the consequences. Osteoporosis can also negatively affect your loved one’s self-image: between their shrinking height and weakened body, they may struggle with feeling less physically attractive. Fortunately, you can help your loved one to mitigate the disease’s emotional-mental side effects by taking proactive steps to get stronger.
Counteract the Effects of Osteoporosis with Preventative Measures
There are multiple preventative measures that your aging loved one can take to reduce their risk of getting osteoporosis. These strategies also help those already afflicted with the disease to increase strength and well-being.
- Get screened once a year: Older adults at high risk for osteoporosis, or anyone over 65 years old, should get an annual DEXA scan. The scan will look at your loved one’s bone density and show whether or not they have osteoporosis—along with recommending any necessary medication or treatment.
- Do exercise and strength training: Weight-bearing exercises like walking or gentle aerobics will improve the health of your loved one’s bones. Strength training with light weights or resistance bands will help increase muscle strength so they can better support their bones.
- Eat a diet rich in vitamin D and calcium: Both vitamin D and calcium are essential to bone strength. Consuming these through meals is a great option, though you can also try supplements if your loved one can’t get enough from their diet alone.
- Quit bad habits like smoking: Smoking and excessive drinking can both increase bone loss. Encourage your loved one to quit as soon as possible if they partake in either—practicing a healthy lifestyle is key to building strong bones.
- Ensure safety at home: Your loved one’s home should be properly equipped with safety features to prevent falls from occurring. Using precautionary items, like slip-resistant mats and grab-rails, can make a big difference to your loved one’s safety.
Encouraging your aging loved one to take preventative measures against osteoporosis can help them remain independent for as long as possible. Between avoiding falls, stocking up on the right nutrients, and getting annual scans, there are many ways to ensure their bones get the care they need. And, these preventative steps also happen to be healthy practices that any older adult will benefit from, regardless of whether they’re at high risk for osteoporosis or not, so there’s even more reason to embrace them.
Perhaps the most important aspect of prevention is to start soon—don’t wait until it’s too late to focus on the health of your loved one’s bones. Make sure they’re adjusting their lifestyle now in order to protect themselves for the future. After all, the aging process can be unpredictable, but ensuring your loved one is staying strong, right down to their bones, gives them the best chance to continue pursuing their dreams and enjoying each day to the fullest.
If you’re unsure how to best support the health of your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers a wide range of services, programs, and online resources to help. Contact us today to learn more.