Until the early ’90s, the only real way for a woman to know if she had poor bone density was if she fractured a bone.
Then, bone density tests came along.
What is bone density?
It’s the grams of calcium and other bone mineral that are packed into a segment of bone—usually the spine, hip and forearm. Bone density tests use X-rays to measure bone density.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women over age 65 should have a bone density test. Anyone younger than 65 who is at high risk for fractures should also have a bone density test, including men.
Risk factors include having lost more than 1.6 inches of height, which can be caused by compression fractures in the spine; long-term use of steroid medications, such as prednisone, which can interfere with the bone-rebuilding process; an unusual drop in estrogen for women or testosterone for men; and a history of bone fractures as an adult.
So what is good bone density?
Once the test is done, you receive what’s called a T-score. The number compares you to a healthy 30-year-old adult. Your T-score is the number of units—called standard deviations—that your bone density is above or below the average. Here’s what your score can tell you:
- If your score is -1 or above, your bone density is normal.
- If your score is between -1 and -2.5, it’s a sign of osteopenia, a condition in which bone density is below normal and may lead to osteoporosis.
- If your score is -2.5 or below, you likely have osteoporosis.
The reason to have the test done, of course, is so action can be taken if your score is less than ideal. Bone density can be improved by making lifestyle changes and, sometimes, taking medication.
Strategies to Improve Bone Density
Strategy No. 1 is to increase your daily intake of calcium (think leafy greens and milk) and vitamin D (which comes from the sun) either by making changes to your diet or taking supplements. Calcium reduces bone loss and decreases the chance of a fracture, while vitamin D helps calcium to be properly absorbed by the body.
Strategy No. 2 is to add weight-bearing exercises to your workout routine. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the best exercises for building bone density are ones that make you work against gravity while staying upright (like walking) and ones that make you work against gravity in a standing, sitting or prone position (like weightlifting).
Sometimes, your doctor will recommend medication as well. Bisphosphonates are the most common drug prescribed for the condition and include Fosamax and Boniva.
Healthy bones continuously break down and rebuild. But, as you age, bones break down faster. When bone rebuilding cannot keep pace, bones deteriorate and become weaker. Osteoporosis medications basically put a brake on the process, which helps maintain bone density and decrease the risk of fractures.
Should women who suffer from osteopenia, which can lead to osteoporosis, take medication? While that may seem like a logical preventative move, not everyone agrees, and it’s a decision that should be made with your doctor.
If you or a loved one gets a low bone density score, it’s time to take action to reduce your risk of fractures in the future. Make an appointment with one of our healthcare specialists today to discuss a strategy that works for you.