June 19th, 2012 at 4:52 pm
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Tips for protecting elder bone health

by Dorian Martin

Broken bones are a real threat to elders, as evidenced by the glut of commercials advertising different medications for osteoporosis. So what should caregivers do to help an elder protect bone health? A recent report entitled “Reducing the Risk of Bone Fracture: A Review of the Research for Low Bone Density” from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides information on how elders can maintain bone health based on an analysis of 567 studies published between January 2005 and March 2011.

Common elder bone health problems

The first step is determining the elder’s bone strength. Bone density is determined by a bone scan or by calculating the risk of bone fracture using the World Health Organization’s Fracture Risk Assessment Tool (FRAX®).

Low bone density happens when bone tissue begins to thin, often due to aging. While most people’s bones weaken with age, two conditions are especially worrisome: osteopenia (mild low-bone density) and osteoporosis (severe low-bone density). Approximately 52 million Americans have osteoporosis. Approximately 50 percent of older women and 20 percent of older men will experience a fracture due to osteoporosis during their lifetime. While low bone density can affect both genders, women — especially those who are postmenopausal — are more at risk for osteoporosis. In fact, one in five women over the age of 50 has this condition.

The most common fractures are of the hip, wrist and spine. AHRQ reports that approximately 20 percent of women over 50 who break a hip will die within a year. However, even if the elder survives, he or she may have to deal with ongoing pain, loss of height and potential surgery. Additionally, the elder faces an increased risk of breaking other bones, which may lead to other health issues.

Three ways to increase elder bone health

AHRQ’s analysis identifies three treatments that help increase bone strength, including:

    1. Medications that either slow the breakdown of old bone or help build new bone. Studies on these medications have focused mostly on women with osteoporosis who are postmenopausal. Some of these medications also help with osteopenia. However, researchers haven’t identified how much some of these medications lower the risk of a fracture, how long the protection lasts or how long an elder may need to take the medicine.
    2. Consuming nutritional supplements and specific foods. A physician may recommend supplements of calcium and vitamin D to help strengthen bones. However, researchers have not determined if taking these two supplements without another treatment actually reduces the risk of fractures for people with osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D also can be found in specific foods such as some dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified foods.
    3. Exercise. Weight-bearing exercises that use extra weight and gravity can help protect bones. However, be forewarned that some exercises — such as golf — could increase the risk of fracture.

      To help an elder protect bone strength, talk to his or her physician about developing an appropriate regimen involving diet, exercise and, if necessary, medications to boost bone health.

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