Osteoporosis: Healthy Bones Begin with Children

Healthy Bones at Every Age

Osteoporosis is a metabolic bone disease that makes bones fragile and susceptible to fracture. It is known as a “silent disease” because there are no symptoms or pain until a hip, wrist, or vertebral fracture occurs. It is more prevalent among certain types of people, including postmenopausal women; people with thin, small-boned frames; people who take certain medications; smokers; those with Asian or Caucasian ancestry; and families with a medical history of bone fractures.

About 9.1 million women and 2.8 million men over 50 in the U.S. suffer from osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Another 40.5 million have its precursor, osteopenia, or low bone density. It is estimated that more than half of all women over 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture during the remainder of their lifetimes.

Many people mistakenly think osteoporosis is part of the normal aging process. In fact, it results from a deficiency of calcium and Vitamin D, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. Bone is living tissue composed mostly of collagen, a protein that provides a soft framework, and calcium phosphate, a mineral that adds strength and hardens the framework. Throughout your life, old bone is constantly removed and new bone is added to your skeleton. In children and teenagers new bone is added faster than old bone is removed, making the bones larger, heavier and denser. After the age of 30, the removal of old bone slowly begins to exceed the formation of new bone.

The best time to prevent osteoporosis is during the growing years. Parents should talk to their child’s pediatrician about osteoporosis. Three things promote growth of healthy bones: a diet rich in calcium, enough Vitamin D, and exercise. Children should have at least three servings of dairy or calcium-rich foods each day. Milk, yogurt, spinach, canned salmon with bones, sardines, white beans, and green vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, and broccoli are all rich in calcium. Some foods, such as orange juice and cereals, are fortified with added calcium.

Vitamin D is formed naturally by the body when the skin is exposed to the sun’s UV rays, and is found in foods such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, beef liver, egg yolk, Swiss cheese, some oils, and fortified margarine and cereals. Ten to fifteen minutes of exposure to the sun without sunscreen, three times a week, allows the body to produce the Vitamin D it needs. (After that initial exposure, apply sunscreen to protect the skin from the Florida sun!) People who spend most of their time indoors or who live in cold climates may need to take Vitamin D supplements.

Children need active play every day for healthy bone growth – this will also reduce the time they spend in front of the TV or playing video games and help prevent excess weight gain.

Weight-bearing exercise has also been shown to increase bone density in adults. A calcium-rich diet and adequate Vitamin D, along with exercise, will help to slow the rate of bone loss as you get older. Post-menopausal women, and men at risk for osteoporosis, should be screened with a DXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan, a safe and painless procedure something like an x-ray that measures the bone density of your hip and spine.  If you do develop osteoporosis or osteopenia there several treatments including nose sprays, tablets and injections.

The incidence of fractures due to osteoporosis in older adults has been increasing rapidly over the last few decades. Hip fractures, collapsed vertebrae, and back pain can be prevented if we start early, with good nutrition and exercise in childhood and throughout our adult lives.

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