Osteoporosis is a very common disease that makes the bones weak and more likely to break easily. Ten million Americans have osteoporosis and the disease causes more than 1.5 million fractures annually, including 547,000 vertebral fractures, 297,000 hip fractures and 397,000 wrist fractures. It cannot be cured, but osteoporosis can be detected by a painless test and treated through lifestyle changes and medications.

The human bone looks something like a honeycomb, with the body constantly depositing new bone and removing old bone. Bone mass usually peaks around age 30, at which time the body starts removing more old bone than forming new bone. A person is diagnosed with osteoporosis when the spaces inside the honeycomb become larger resulting in decreased bone density and strength. Osteoporosis does not cause any symptoms, and those with the disease usually do not know they have it until they experience a collapsed vertebra or fracture.

People at increased risk for developing osteoporosis tend to be those who are women, Caucasian or Asian, over the age of 50, small-boned and have a family history of the disease. Other risk factors for osteoporosis include regular consumption of alcohol, smoking and certain medications, including glucocorticoids, long-term use of some anti-seizure drugs, gonadotropin-releasing hormone drugs for endometriosis, certain cancer treatments and excessive use of antacids that contain aluminum. For these people, a bone density test typically is recommended to identify osteoporosis, determine the rate of bone loss, predict risk for broken bones and measure effects of treatment. The test, which does not require any preparation, is similar to having an X-ray but with considerably less exposure to radiation.

Treatment for osteoporosis usually focuses on preventing fractures by eating a proper diet, exercising regularly and taking fall precautions. Medications also may be prescribed to reduce bone loss, increase bone density or reduce the risk of fracture. A healthy diet includes eating foods high in calcium and vitamin D, such as dairy products, dark green, leafy vegetables, sardines, tofu, almonds, egg yolks, saltwater fish and liver. People over the age of 50 should get 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 400 to 600 IU (International Units) of vitamin D daily.

Weight-bearing exercise can help make bones and muscles stronger and slow down the rate of bone loss. Recommended activities done three to four days a week may include walking, hiking, jogging, playing tennis, climbing stairs or dancing. To reduce the risk of falls, rooms should be kept free of clutter, and carpets and area rugs need to be anchored to the floor. Rubber-soled shoes are suggested for better traction and a cane or walker can help with added stability.

Osteoporosis is not an unavoidable part of aging. It can be prevented and treated. Even if you have already been diagnosed with the disease, you can take steps to slow its progression and reduce the risk of falls.

For more information about osteoporosis, talk with your doctor, of visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website at www.niams.nih.gov. Call 561-882-9100 for a free referral to a specialist at the Institute for Advanced Orthopedics.