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Osteoporosis: Is it going to get you?

By Katherine Aitchison, on 20 October 2011

I (like many others) have a family history of osteoporosis so it was with some vested interest and a little trepidation that I attended today’s Lunch Hour Lecture: ‘Osteoporosis: Bouncing Babies to Crumbling Wrinklies‘. The speaker was Professor Allen Goodship of the UCL Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science and the lecture was in honour of World Osteoporosis Day. He aimed not to scare us with the grim facts and figures of osteoporosis, but instead to give us some ideas on how to avoid the condition.

Many people will have some understanding of what osteoporosis is, but in brief it is a condition of old age characterised by ‘thinning’ bones and increased numbers of what are known as fragility fractures in the hips, wrists and vertebrae. It’s particularly associated with post-menopausal women (because the decrease in oestrogen levels is associated with increased bone thinning) but it also affects older men. As Professor Goodship put it, it is a disease that believes in gender equality!

To begin, Professor Goodship gave us an overview of bone structure and the entities involved. Bone is made mostly of collagen (which strengthens it) and minerals (which stiffen it). He showed us how important both of these parts are with a couple of short videos. In the first a bone that had been heated to destroy the collagen was easily snapped in two (try this if you ever cook spare ribs on the BBQ). The second video showed a bone that had been soaked in acid to remove the minerals; the bone had become so flexible it could be tied into a knot! All the proof I needed to convince me of their equal importance.

So, now to the part everyone’s been waiting for: how to avoid osteoporosis. Well, the three main things according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation are: eat lots of calcium, get plenty of sunshine (to help your body produce vitamin D) and the most important point? Exercise!

You see, bone mass increases relative to the load placed on it so if you do lots of running and jumping you’ll get large tibias and if you play lots of tennis, the size of your radius will increase. If you build up your bone mass now, your bones will end up stronger when you are older and they’ll be less likely to fracture.

This advice is particularly pertinent for women who are on the slim side and who are therefore at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis. An interesting study highlighting this point compared the bone densities of women in two weight categories after time spent standing on vibrating plates. Women under 65kg who used a vibrating plate had significantly more bone mass compared to women of the same weight who did not use the plate. Those who didn’t use the plate actually lost quite a large amount of bone mass and once it’s gone, says Professor Goodship, it’s very hard to recover. Interestingly the study found no difference between women of over 65kg whether they used the plate or not.

Going into the talk I was slightly afraid that I would hear osteoporosis is a relatively inescapable condition that I have every reason to be afraid of but I was pleasantly surprised to instead hear there’s plenty I can do to reduce my risk. There’s much research still to be done as there are many unanswered questions about how it develops but for now I’m off to join a tennis class and enjoy an outdoor picnic of cheese and milk!

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