It's a disease that has come to be known as "the silent thief" because it robs individuals of their bone strength without showing any symptoms. It's also known as "a women's disease." But osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to thin, weaken and break easily, affects women and men -- nearly half of all people over the age of 75.
Experts are urging more men to bone up on some hard facts -- one in eight men over age 50 will have an osteoporotic fracture of some kind in his lifetime. Frac-tures due to osteoporosis can lead to chronic pain, loss of independence and, in the case of hip fractures, can be life-threatening. In people age 65 and older, 80 percent of hip fractures in men can be attributed to osteoporosis. Of those men who suffer a hip fracture, a third will die within a year.
"Men tend to think they're not at risk," says Karen Stone, director of the Bone & Joint Wellness Program at the McLean Home in Simsbury, Conn. "So they don't take calcium, they don't take vitamin D and they don't get bone-density tests. Over the past few years, though, new studies have shown that osteoporosis represents a real threat to men as well as women."
According to the National Institutes of Health, osteoporosis develops less often in men because they have larger skeletons, which means bone loss starts later and progresses more slowly. Women are smaller-framed and experience mid-life hormonal changes and an accompanying rapid loss of bone density. But while women lose bone mass quickly in the years after meno-pause, by age 65 or 70 calcium absorption decreases in both sexes, and both start losing bone mass at the same rate.
Research also shows several risk factors have been linked to osteoporosis in men, including undiagnosed low levels of testosterone, prolonged exposure to certain medications and unhealthful habits such as smoking, excessive drinking and lack of exercise.
Stone says those suffering from the disease will experience loss of bone strength over time, with few or no symptoms, until there is a loss of height, the spine curves or an everyday activity such as picking up a grandchild or trying to open a stubborn window causes a bone to break. When an older man experiences a fracture, though, health-care providers may not suspect osteoporosis.
"In spite of widespread publicity and public awareness about osteoporosis, very few people connect osteoporosis with fractures," says Deborah T. Gold, education chair of the National Osteoporosis Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. "Adults who fracture a bone from a minor trauma, such as putting their hand out to break a fall, should be assessed for osteoporosis. Normal bones should be able to withstand that kind of non-traumatic impact."
The good news is that diet and exercise can help prevent osteoporosis. Experts are promoting the importance of eating the right foods. For example, foods high in calcium -- such as low-fat cheese, yogurt and milk -- should be consumed daily. If your diet doesn't provide enough calcium, use a supplement. (Some individuals, such as those who are prone to kidney stones, need to be careful about suddenly increasing their calcium intake. Always check with your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.)
Bone health may also be helped by regular weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, racquet sports, stair climbing, lifting weights and using resistance machines. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Osteoporosis can be treated if it is detected before significant bone loss has occurred. A bone density test, a painless, noninvasive ultrasound taken of the heel, can detect both osteopenia, which is the beginning of bone loss, and osteoporosis. If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, your doctor can prescribe medications to reduce fracture risk and help stop additional bone loss.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.