Osteoporosis is often a condition associated with aging, but there’s another condition that you may not be aware of that can affect your bones as well. It’s called osteopenia—a precursor to osteoporosis. The two are often confused, but there are distinct differences.
Here’s what you should know about osteopenia and some ways to help prevent it.
What is osteopenia?
As we age, we naturally lose bone mass and our bones become weaker. Osteopenia is a condition that begins as you lose bone mass—calcium and other minerals—making your bones less dense, fragile and more prone to fractures.
“Osteopenia is the early stages of bone weakening,” said Ali Baaj, MD, a neurosurgeon with Banner - University Medicine Neurosurgery Clinic in Phoenix, AZ. “Whereas, osteoporosis is an advanced stage of bone weakening and is more serious.”
Although osteoporosis is more serious, early diagnosis of osteopenia is important as it can prevent osteoporosis and future health problems.
What are the symptoms of osteopenia?
Many people with osteopenia have no symptoms at all. It is typically not detected unless you have a bone density test, known as a DEXA scan, to determine your bone mineral density or you’re experiencing localized bone pain and weakness in an area of a broken bone.
Who’s at greater risk for osteopenia?
When you’re young, you grow new bone faster than your body breaks down old bone. This contributes to a high bone mass. As you age, however, the rate in which you grow new bone versus breaking down old bone slows, making you more susceptible to the early stages of bone loss or osteopenia.
“Aging is the most common risk factor for osteopenia, and post-menopausal women are at highest risk,” Dr. Baaj said.
Women lose bone more quickly after menopause due to lower estrogen levels, but there are some other risk factors that can contribute to early bone loss as well. These include: a family history of osteoporosis, previous bony or spinal column fractures, smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, drinking too much alcohol, anorexia and medical conditions associated with bone loss, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
But there’s good news, for some
“Not all patients with osteopenia will develop osteoporosis,” Dr. Baaj said. “This is why early diagnosis is important, so your doctor can establish a treatment strategy.”
In order to diagnose osteopenia, your doctor will do a bone density test. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that you have your bone density scan if you’re a woman aged 65 or older, a man aged 70 or older, you break a bone after age 50 or have risk factors for bone loss.
Ways you can slow bone loss
You can’t always avoid osteopenia, but certain choices and habits can slow this process. These include:
- Not smoking.
- Limiting alcohol consumption.
- Maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet.
- Taking vitamin D and calcium supplements and possibly some medications as directed by your doctor.
- Participating in weight-bearing exercises (things like jogging, lifting weights and taking the stairs).
Talk to your doctor during your next well visit to discuss your potential risk for developing osteopenia and recommendations for boosting your bone health. For more ways to stay strong and healthy as you age, check out:
- 5 Tips to Keep Your Bones Strong as You Age
- Vitamins: What You Should Take at Every Age
- 7 Ways to Lower Your Sodium Intake
- Chances Are, You Aren’t Getting Enough of This Vitamin