What is Bone Loss?
Osteopenia is a condition attributed to early signs of bone loss. Osteopenia can lead to osteoporosis, but not everyone who has osteopenia develops osteoporosis. Osteopenia is characterized with lower than normal bone mineral density, but it is still not low enough to be considered as osteoporosis.1 To prevent further deterioration of their bones, osteopenia patients should make some lifestyle changes, like doing regular weight bearing exercises, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, eating a healthy diet, and quitting smoking.
The Relationship Between Age & Bone Mass
Bone mass, or the amount of bone one has, generally peaks around the age of 30 years. After this age, the bone mass starts to decline. The body begins to reabsorb bone faster than what it can make. In women, this bone re-absorption becomes more rapid after menopause. As one ages, they tend to lose more bone cells than what they make. This leads to weakening of bones and causes osteopenia to progress into osteoporosis. Also, the bones become more vulnerable to breakage, fractures and other damages.
Early Signs of Bone Loss
Most people do not know whether they are suffering from osteopenia or not. Some common signs of bone loss are:
Receding Gums: Receding gums are commonly associated to many factors, one of them being bone loss.2 The teeth are connected to the jaw bone. When the jaw begins losing bone, the gums start receding. Jaw bone loss has also been linked to low bone mineral densities in areas like the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine.
Weak & Brittle Fingernails: Research shows that good nail health is a sign of good bone health too. People with healthy bones have stronger and healthier finger nails. However, when assessing their nails, one should consider factors like the time they spend in water, exposure to harsh chemicals, digging the soil or other works which can be tough on their nails. Weak and brittle fingernails are one of the early signs of bone loss.
Muscle Aches, Cramps & Bone Pain: With age, most people tend to accept pains and aches as a part of their life. But these symptoms may be signs of bone loss. Muscle and bone pain may indicate severely inadequate level of the bone building nutrient, vitamin D, in the body. Cramps are another symptom of bone loss. Although, a number of mechanisms can trigger leg and foot cramps, but leg cramps which occur at night often signal towards deficiency of calcium, magnesium or potassium in the blood. If this condition persists over time, it can cause excessive bone loss. Muscle aches, cramps and bone pain are an important indication that you are suffering from bone loss.
Reduced Grip Strength: As one ages, they can minimize their risk of fracture by preventing falls. This can be achieved by maintaining good body balance, overall muscle strength and grip strength. A strong handgrip is the main physical factor linked to overall bone mineral density. People with a poor hand grip tend to have weak muscles and poor bone density. Decreased grip strength is an early sign of bone loss.
Loss of Height: One loses height as they grow old. Height loss is preceded by vertebral fractures and poor posture. Poor posture is not always indicative of bone loss, but it does point towards weakening of the muscles around the spine. Since muscles and bones work together, and tend to gain and lose strength simultaneously, any loss in muscle is linked to an eventual loss in the bone.
Decreased Fitness: Physical fitness is measured by muscle strength, aerobic capacity and body balance. Osteopenia and osteoporosis have been associated with overall decline in physical fitness. When general fitness declines, bone mass is likely to decline too. Reduced levels of fitness are an indication that you are suffering from loss of bone mass.
Risk Factors for Bone Loss
Generally, the risk factors for developing osteopenia and those for developing osteoporosis are same. Factors like age, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, inactive lifestyle, deficient dietary intake of calcium, and prolonged steroid treatment can make one more susceptible to these bone loss diseases. Further, being a female, being abnormally thin or having a small frame, a family history of osteoporosis, previous fractures, hysterectomy, and history of anorexia nervosa are some other factors, which can spike up the chances for these bone disorders, too. Patients of chronic medical conditions like malnutrition, malabsorption, rheumatoid arthritis, premature menopause, type 1 diabetes, hyperthyroidism, chronic liver disease or hypogonadism also have high chances of developing these bone problems. These people are thus advised to contact their doctor and get their bone density checked for timely diagnosis and treatment of osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Diagnosis of Bone Loss
To accurately diagnose bone loss or osteopenia, the doctor would ask the individual to undergo bone mineral density test. This is generally done through a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan. DEXA scan results are reported as T-scores. T-score above -1 is considered normal, T-score between -1 and -2.5 indicates osteopenia, while T-score below -2.5 implies osteoporosis. Other tests, like quantitative ultrasound may also need to be performed. Quantitative ultrasound measures the speed of sound in the bone to determine bone strength and density.
Prognosis of Bone Loss
Instead of getting frightened or worried by the early signs of bone loss, one should consider them as an opportunity to focus more on their personal health and longevity by taking adequate care of their bones. By keeping their bones healthy, one can ensure overall good health and well being for themselves and can easily halt and prevent further bone loss.
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