Make old bones - look after your young(er) ones

Bones play many roles in the body — providing structure, protecting organs, anchoring muscles and storing calcium. Everyone recognises the importance of building strong and healthy bones during childhood and adolescence, but what’s less well publicised is the need to protect bone health as we age

Why is bone health important?

Your bones are continuously changing — old bone is broken down and new bone is made. When you’re young, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone and your bone mass increases. Most people reach their peak bone mass at around age 30. After that, bone remodelling continues, but you lose slightly more than you gain. How likely you are to develop osteoporosis — a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle — depends on how much bone mass you attain by the time you reach age 30 and how rapidly you lose it later. The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have “in the bank” and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age

What affects bone health?

A number of factors can affect bone health — some modifiable and some not. For example:

- The amount of calcium in your diet. A diet low in calcium contributes to diminished bone density, early bone loss and an increased risk of fractures
- Physical activity level. People who are physically inactive have a higher risk of osteoporosis than do their more-active counterparts
- Tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption. Research suggests that tobacco use contributes to weak bones. Similarly, regularly having more than two alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of osteoporosis, possibly because alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium
- Being a woman. Women have less bone tissue than do men
- Getting older. Your bones become thinner and weaker as you age
- Race, frame size and family history. You’re at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you’re white or of Asian descent. You’re also at greater risk if you’re extremely thin (with a body mass index of 19 or less) or have a small body frame because you may have less bone mass to draw from as you age. In addition, having a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis puts you at greater risk — especially if you also have a family history of fractures
- Hormone levels. Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. In women, bone loss increases dramatically at menopause due to dropping estrogen levels. Prolonged periods of amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation, before menopause also increases the risk of osteoporosis. In men, low testosterone levels can cause a loss of bone mass
- Eating disorders and other conditions and procedures that affect bone health. People who have anorexia or bulimia are at risk of bone loss. In addition, stomach surgery (gastrectomy), weight-loss surgery and conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and Cushing’s disease can affect your body’s ability to absorb calcium
- Use of certain medications. Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, is damaging to bone. Other drugs associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis include long-term use of aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, the antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the cancer treatment drug methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications, the acid-blocking drugs called proton pump inhibitors and aluminum-containing antacids

If you’re concerned about your bone health or your risk factors for osteoporosis, consult your doctor. He or she may recommend a bone density test. The results will help your doctor gauge your bone density and determine your rate of bone loss

What can I do to keep my bones healthy?

Unfortunately, thinning bones are a fact of life for many older people. Bone loss can result in osteoporosis, which means “porous bones.” Eventually bones can become so thin that they fracture. Osteoporotic fractures are a leading cause of disability

The bad news: you’ve probably already reached your peak bone mass

The good news: There’s plenty you can still do to keep your bones strong and healthy

Eating for strong bones

First, make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need for proper bone growth. A healthy diet can significantly reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis, and it’s never too late to start

2 Critical nutrients for bones: Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium is a crucial building block of bone tissue. Vitamin D helps the body absorb and process calcium. Together, these two nutrients are the cornerstone of healthy bones

The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,200 mg of calcium a day for people 51 or older. Milk and other dairy products are excellent natural sources of calcium. You’ll hit the mark by eating three servings of dairy products a day. Other good food sources of calcium include calcium-fortified orange juice, leafy green vegetables, and broccoli

Optimal vitamin D levels are still  a matter of debate. Milk and some brands of yogurt are fortified with D, but many researchers think most Brits fall short on this critical nutrient, which is naturally produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sun. it’ll come as no surprise to you to find that in virtually all parts of the country, especially during the winter months, the sun is too weak to generate vitamin D. Older people especially are at high risk of vitamin deficiency. The reason: the body becomes less efficient at producing vitamin D as we age

there aren’t many foods rich in vitamin D, but the ones that are include salmon, tuna, sole, flounder, pork, eggs, beef liver, soy and ricotta cheese. be careful of using foods fortified with Vitamin D such as fortified milk and cereal. Check other added ingredients carefully

Bone strength goes beyond nutrition basics

Healthy bones depend on more than calcium and D. Many other nutrients are essential to maintaining bone, such as protein, vitamin B12, magnesium, vitamin C, and other nutrients

Unfortunately, the diets of many older people fall short on some of these nutrients, so even if they’re getting calcium and vitamin D, they’re still losing bone

A diet of whole foods

The best way to get all the nutrients you need is to fill your plate with whole foods. Nuts, beans, whole grains, and fruit and vegetables are naturally rich in an array of nutrients essential to healthy bones. Fruits and vegetables are just as important as dairy products for bone health

Choosing nutrient-rich foods is particularly important as you get older since most people’s calorie requirements go down.  The challenge is to get as much nutrition into a limited number of calories. Here’s a few simple tips on how to do it:

- Avoid highly processed foods. Processing strips some foods of their natural nutrients. Even when vitamins or minerals are added back, processed foods usually lack the full array of nutrients found in natural foods
- Choose whole foods.  Whenever you have the choice, go for foods with whole grains, which are far richer in nutrients linked to bone health. Look at the ingredient panel of breads, cereals, and other products made with grain. The first ingredient should be a whole grain, otherwise leave it alone
- Go for variety.  It’s easy to get into a rut, especially if you’re cooking for yourself. That rut can mean you’re missing out on the variety that ensures a healthy diet. Try a new grain, such as bulgur or quinoa. Choose vegetables from across the spectrum of colours, from leafy greens to red sweet peppers. A colorful diet will help ensure a balance of nutrients necessary for good bone

When to reach for Calcium or Vitamin D supplements

Even the healthiest diet may not provide all the nutrients you need for bone health. If you don’t drink milk, for instance, you may be falling short on calcium. Multivitamins or single supplements of specific nutrients can help fill in the gaps.  But before you start taking any supplement, it’s wise to talk to your doctor

How to strengthen bones with exercise

Along with a healthy diet, physical activity is crucial for strong bones. Most people think of exercise as a way to strengthen muscles. But weight-bearing exercises also puts stress on the bones attached to those muscles, stimulating them to rebuild themselves

The most effective exercises for strengthening bones are those that involve weights. Some exercises use the body’s own weight, such as deep knee bends or push-ups. Others involve weights that are held, such as dumb-bells used for bicep curls. Another way to exercise muscles is using stretch bands that provide resistance. Here’s what to consider:

Develop a whole body routine -Strength-building exercises benefit the specific muscles and bones being exercised, so it’s important to develop a routine that involves all the major muscle groups (chest, legs, arms, back shoulders). Each muscle group should be exercised at least once a week

Start slowly -Strength-building exercises may sound daunting, especially if you haven’t exercised before.  Start an exercise with no weight or very little weight and then slowly add heavier weights. Look to do at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercises for each major muscle group, once a week

Stay with it - A lot of people are anxious about weight-bearing exercises at first,but once you get into it, you’ll find that you love feeling more stamina and greater strength

Along the way, you’ll also be building stronger bones and giving yourself the best chance to ‘make old bones’

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March 14, 2012

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