Throughout our lives, our bones rebuild themselves. We need calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients plus exercise to keep our bones healthy. As we age, though, our bodies break down more bone than they are able to rebuild, which can weaken our bones and make them more prone to fractures.

The Imaging Center at St. Mary’s Medical Center provides full body bone density screenings. The central bone density measures the bone mineral density of the spinal area and hip bones. The U.S. Surgeon General, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the National Osteoporosis Foundation recommend that all women 65 years and older get a bone density test — but they also state that women who have any risk factors for a fracture should get the test at a younger age. At the time of menopause, especially if you’re not taking estrogen therapy, you’re at the greatest risk to lose bone mass (you can lose two to three percent per year for the first five to seven years of menopause).

Osteoporosis, which means “porous bone,” is a disease that occurs when the bones weaken to the point that they become fragile and break easily. These fractures mainly occur in the hips, spine and wrist, but any bone can be affected. Most people aren’t aware that they have osteoporosis until their bones start breaking. Today, about 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with osteoporosis and many more have lost enough bone mass so that they have a condition known as osteopenia, placing them at risk for serious bone loss and fractures.

Are you at risk?

While anyone can develop osteoporosis, some people are at higher risk than others. Women are more at risk than men. In fact, about 80 percent of all cases of osteoporosis occur in women. Women who are Caucasian or Asian often have lower bone mass and density as part of their ethnic heritage, which puts them at increased risk.

Your personal and family history may place you at greater risk. For instance, if you have a close relative who has osteoporosis or had a broken bone after age 50, osteoporosis may run in your family.  You should be aware that if you had a broken bone, you also may be at greater risk.

There are risk factors that you can control including being physically active and getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet. If you smoke, you should stop because smoking affects your bone health.

Some medications may cause a loss of bone mass. These can include drugs commonly used to treat arthritis and asthma, called glucocorticoids (such as Prednisone); some anti-seizure medications; cancer drugs and medicines that treat endometriosis. If you have an underactive thyroid, you may be putting your bones at risk if you take too much thyroid hormone. 

You should talk to your doctor about your risk factors and ways you can help protect

Diagnosing Osteoporosis

For some people, a broken bone is the first indication that they have osteoporosis. Other indications can be losing height. A loss of an inch or more in height may be an indication that spinal fractures are occurring.

Doctors use a bone density test to measure bone strength. These tests are painless and safe. The most commonly used bone density test is called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry or DEXA. DEXA uses X-rays to measure the density of the bone in the spine and the hips. A DEXA scan uses a very low dose of radiation and gives doctors a precise measurement of bone density.

When you have a bone density test, you’ll be given a T-score comparing your bone density to that of a young adult. Your T-score is normal if it is above -1. You may have low bone mass (osteopenia) if your T-score is between -1 and -2.5. A score below -2.5 means you have osteoporosis. The other score, a Z-score, indicates the amount of bone you have compared to others like you (similar gender, age and size). This score will either be above or below the norm. If it is unusually high or low, your doctor may order further testing.