About 54 million Americans have low bone mass, putting them at risk of developing osteoporosis, which is characterized by bone fragility and discrepancies in both quality and quantity of bone mass in the body. During National Osteoporosis Awareness Month, Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Brendan Lee explains the causes and risk factors of osteoporosis.
There are many known genes that contribute to osteoporosis, but there are preventative measures both men and women can take to help protect themselves against the common bone disease, even if genetically predisposed.
“While we know that about 60 percent of bone mass traits are genetic, there are environmental factors, such as physical activity level, vitamin D intake, medications and sun exposure, that can contribute to bone deterioration over time as well,” said Lee, chair and Robert and Janice McNair Endowed Chair and Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor.
Those at the highest risk for osteoporosis are post- and perimenopausal women, because estrogen is important for maintaining bone density. While more common in women, men also can develop osteoporosis, as well as younger people who have chronic or inflammatory diseases or take certain medications.
To help protect against bone density loss, Lee recommends exercising regularly, not smoking, getting adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D, as well as monitoring bone mass earlier in life, especially if there is a family history of osteoporosis or brittle bones.
“Osteoporosis is essentially a pediatric disease at first onset. Bone mass begins to decline in our 20s, so if it does not reach peak levels before that point, we are starting to decline from an already reduced bone mass level. Losing bone mass from an earlier age and from a lower baseline puts us at risk for osteoporosis later in life,” Lee said.
Warning signs of low bone density include bone pain, curvatures and easy breaks or fractures in adults, and children also may experience slightly stunted growth. Osteoporosis can be measured by a bone density test, which involves a scan, or it can be diagnosed by a physician if the patient experiences frequent fragility fractures.