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What’s Different About Bone Fractures When You Get Older

In the U.S., 250,000 to 500,000 women break a hip or spinal bone every year—90% of the time due to a fall. One in four men and one in two women over age 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, said P. Dean Cummings, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at TOCA at Banner Health in Arizona. For women, this risk is greater than that of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. And if you fracture a bone after menopause, you’re five times more likely to fracture another bone within a year.

Unfortunately, changes that happen as you age can make it harder for your bones to heal. More than 15% of fractures in older people heal slowly or don’t heal at all. Osteoporosis, or thinning and weakening of the bones, can make it harder for these fractures to mend. That’s because with osteoporosis, bone quality is lower, there’s less blood supply to the bone and the bone loses some of its ability to repair itself.

Here’s what to expect if you fracture a bone

No matter how old you are, your doctor will want to treat your fracture so it can heal. You may need a cast to hold it in place, or you may need metal rods or plates inserted surgically. “Some bones are easier to fix when patients are younger, because their bones are stronger and denser,” Dr. Cummings said.

You’ll want to be as mobile as possible while your fracture is healing. When you’re mobile, you lower your risk of pneumonia, pressure ulcers, blood clots, loss of muscle mass and falls.

Using crutches, a walker or a cane and seeking care from a physical therapist can help you maintain and improve your mobility. Appropriate pain management and using braces can also help.

You’ll also want to have a support system in place as you recover from your fracture. You may need help with tasks such as showering, dressing, preparing meals or climbing stairs. If you don’t have family and friends who can assist you, talk to your doctor’s office—they may be able to connect you with visiting nurses or other social services in your area.

Evaluate your living space to make sure you keep the risk of falling as low as possible. Your healing bone isn’t as strong as it was before it was fractured, and you don’t want to reinjure it or fracture another bone. Make sure:

  • Throw rugs are firmly attached to the floor
  • Steps are in good repair
  • Electrical cords run alongside the wall, not across the floor
  • Lighting is adequate
  • Grab bars or handles are installed in your tub and by your toilet, if needed

Take these steps to keep your bones strong and healthy

“Osteoporosis is not a natural outcome of getting old. You can improve the quality of your bones at any age,” Dr. Cummings said. “The earlier you pay attention to your bone health, the better.” Here are some ways you can keep your bones as strong as possible:

  • Choose a healthy diet
  • Make sure you get enough vitamin D—you probably need a supplement
  • Exercise so you maintain balance, flexibility and strength that can help you avoid a fall
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit caffeine
  • Evaluate the areas where you live, play and work so you can reduce the risk of falls
  • Ask your doctor about your bone health
  • Talk to your doctor about alternatives to medications and treatments that can harm your bones
  • Seek treatment for osteoporosis and other medical conditions that can lead to poor bone health

The bottom line

When you’re older, bone fractures can heal slowly and lead to other health complications. So, it’s essential to keep your bones as healthy as possible. If you’d like to connect with a health care professional who can help you maintain your bone strength, reach out to Banner Health.

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Orthopedics Senior Health

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