We have a total of 206 bones in our body, including the bones of the skull, spine, ribs, arms and legs.1 Bones provide structure for our body and work with muscles and joints to hold our body together and give us movement. They also have the important role of protecting our internal organs such as the brain, heart and lungs. Bones store minerals like calcium and contain bone marrow where blood cells are.2
Like all our body’s cells, our bones are constantly changing and rebuilding. Our body breaks down old bones and puts new bone in its place every day. As we age, our bones break down more bone than they put back. All through our life, our body is continually removing old bone and replacing it with fresh bone. This process is called remodelling. While it’s normal to lose some bone as we age, if we don’t take steps to keep our bones healthy we may lose too much and develop osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a common bone disease where our bones become weak and more likely to break. Many people have weak bones and do not know, as bone loss happens over a long period and has no obvious symptoms. For many people, a broken bone, wrist, spine or hip is the first sign they have osteoporosis.3
While it’s particularly important to take steps to build strong and healthy bones during childhood and adolescence,4 healthy bones are important at every stage of life. For children, strong healthy bones assist them to reach their optimum growth potential. Bones reach their peak strength and bone mass by your twenties. For adults, strong and healthy bones mean that you can lead a fit and active life and reduce the risk of breaks occurring. The good news is that it is never too late to take care of your bones.2
Symptoms of poor bone health
A number of factors can cause poor bone health. For example:
- Diet and calcium intake – a diet low in calcium may contribute to a higher risk of fractures and bone loss, as well as poor bone density.4
- Physical inactivity – not enough exercise puts you at greater risk of poor bone health.4
- Smoking and alcohol – research suggests that smoking and more than two alcoholic beverages per day increases the risk of osteoporosis and weakened bones. This may possibly be due to alcohol interfering with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.4
- Size, age and gender – women are at greater risk of osteoporosis because they have less bone tissue than men do. Extremely thin people (body mass index of 19 or less,) or people with a small body frame may also be at a higher risk because they have less bone mass to draw from as they age. Ageing affects bones as they commonly become thinner and weaker with age.4
- Genes and race – If you have a parent or sibling with osteoporosis you are at greater risk. People of Caucasian and Asian descent are also at higher risk.4
- Hormones – for women, bone loss increases dramatically at menopause due to a drop in oestrogen levels. Too much thyroid hormone can also cause bone loss. Absence of menstruation for prolonged periods before menopause can increase the risk of osteoporosis. For men, low testosterone can cause a loss of bone mass.4
- Eating disorders – some eating disorders may increase the risk of bone loss. This is often due to low body fat and over exercising which can cause menstruation to cease, affecting hormone levels.4
- Digestive conditions – some digestive conditions may affect the ability to absorb calcium.4
- Some medication – long term use of certain medications can be damaging to bone. Discuss with your healthcare practitioner if you are concerned.4
Signs of low bone density may include:
- Weak bones
- Poor bone density
- Breaks and fractures
Prevention of poor bone health
It is never too early or too late to take care of your bones. The following steps can help you improve your bone health:
- Well-balanced diet rich in calcium – foods rich in calcium include dairy, beans, legumes, sardines (with the bones) and calcium fortified products such as tofu and soy. Green leafy vegetables including broccoli, kale and brussel sprouts, are all good sources of calcium.3
- Get some sunshine (in moderation) – The action of the sun on the skin is required for the formation of vitamin D. Adequate vitamin D is required for bone health. It can be difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D through the diet alone.2 Good sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver and milk fortified with vitamin D.3
- Keep active – bones become stronger with exercise. The best exercises are strength building and weight bearing exercises such as walking and lifting weights. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes each day.3
- Don’t smoke or drink – this is important for an overall healthy lifestyle but also to reduce the risk of poor bone health.3
- Bone density check – if you are at risk of poor bone health, discuss with your healthcare practitioner. They may offer you a bone density test if you are concerned.3
- Prevent falls – falling can cause broken and fractured bones. Most falls can be prevented. Check the home for dangers such as poor lighting and falling hazards such as loose rugs and cords. Ensure you have vision checked regularly. Increasing strength and balance with exercises such as dancing and yoga may also assist to avoid falls.3
Management of bone health
There are many supplements which may support bone health:
- Calcium- The mineral calcium plays a major role in bone strength and is necessary for bone health throughout life. Adequate calcium intake is critical for achieving optimal peak bone mass and to modify the rate of bone loss associated with ageing. Women’s calcium requirements are increased after menopause.
- Magnesium- Like calcium, magnesium plays an integral part of the structure of bones. Adequate levels are necessary to maintain normal blood calcium levels. Over 60% of all the magnesium in the body is found in the skeleton.
- Vitamin D3- Promotes calcium and phosphorus absorption and helps to form and maintain strong bones. It is synthesized in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. The average requirement to produce adequate Vitamin D is approximately 10-15 minutes per day of unprotected sun exposure during mid-morning or mild afternoon sun, and at midday in winter. Ageing and darker skin tones are associated with a reduced capacity to synthesize vitamin D in the skin. It is difficult to obtain adequate vitamin D from food sources alone and a vitamin D supplement may assist.
- Boron- Plays a role in calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and phosphorus metabolism and therefore is important in the maintenance of healthy bones.
- Silica- Is beneficial for healthy bones/bone health.
- Vitamin K – Works synergistically with Vitamin D for bone health and helps the body transport calcium.
Frequently asked questions
Can I get osteoporosis if I am male?
Many men think they are not at risk of Osteoporosis and believe it is only a problem for women. Osteoporosis is a definite risk for older men with certain characteristics.3 This may include inactivity, smoking and drinking, inadequate diet, Asian or Caucasian background, and a family history of osteoporosis.
How do I know if I have osteoporosis?
For many, the first symptom of poor bone health is a fracture or broken bone of the wrist, spine or hip. Bone diseases such as osteoporosis happen over a long period of time and do not cause pain or discomfort. Most people do not realise they have osteoporosis. It is important to talk to your healthcare practitioner if you think you may be at risk.3