Osteoporosis is on the rise, with women disproportionately affected by this serious bone disease. We’ll be diving into why this is, plus 5 major factors responsible for skyrocketing our risk, from our global love affair with sugar to our age.
Osteoporosis is a condition that affects millions of women worldwide, and it occurs when bones become weak and brittle, making them more prone to fractures. While osteoporosis can affect both men and women, women are at a higher risk due to a wide range of factors – we’ll unpack why this is and what women can do to keep their bones at peak strength. A whopping 4.74 million Aussies over 50 have osteoporosis or poor bone health with an increase of over 30% in cases between 2012 and 2022 – and that number is only set to rise. But, despite there being a number of factors particularly relating to women’s risk for osteoporosis, this disease is certainly not limited to women. Men make up around 30% of fractures related to osteoporosis and osteopenia – the latter of which defines a loss of bone mineral density. A number of the risk-raising culprits below also apply to men – particularly the lifestyle and genetics factors, so it’s worth tuning in to find out how to lower your chances of developing the condition. Let’s dive into 6 of the biggest contributing factors to osteoporosis in women.
As women get older, the chance of developing osteoporosis increases – those over the age of 50 are particularly at risk. This is because our bones tend to become less dense around this age. But why, you ask? It’s all down to estrogen fluctuations that occur – estrogen helps regulate the balance between bone formation and resorption, which is a continuous process known as bone remodelling. It suppresses the activity of cells called osteoclasts, which are responsible for breaking down old bone tissue. By inhibiting this activity, estrogen helps to maintain a healthy bone density. So, this decline in estrogen levels during menopause disrupts the delicate balance of bone remodelling, leading to accelerated bone resorption – this is a bad thing! It’s also known as bone breakdown – without adequate bone formation to compensate. As a result, bone loss occurs at a faster rate, leading to decreased bone density and increased risk of osteoporosis. It’s also worth noting that estrogen plays a role in calcium absorption too, which is important for bone health, so with lower estrogen levels during and after menopause, many women have a lower absorption rate of this mineral.
Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to chronic inflammation in the body. Inflammation triggers the release of certain substances that can interfere with the normal bone remodelling process. This imbalance can result in increased bone breakdown and reduced bone formation, ultimately leading to decreased bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis. There’s also the effect of sugar on nutrient absorption – sugary beverages, sweets and ultra-processed foods often displace nutrient-rich foods in our diet, leaving us low on bone-strengthening calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin K. High sugar consumption can also contribute to increased acidity in the body. To counterbalance this acidity, the body may leach calcium from the bones, which acts as a mineral buffer. Over time, this can weaken the bones and make them more susceptible to fractures. But sugar can also play tricks on our hormone levels – particularly insulin, which plays a crucial role in regulating blood-sugar levels. Here’s why this matters – insulin resistance is associated with an increase in a hormone called parathyroid hormone, which can lead to increased calcium excretion from the body. When calcium is lost in the urine, it can weaken bones and contribute to the development of osteoporosis.
Another contributing factor to osteoporosis risk for women is genetics. A family history of osteoporosis can increase the risk of developing the condition. If your mother or grandmother had osteoporosis, you may be more likely to develop it too.
Certain lifestyle choices can also increase the risk of osteoporosis in women. For example, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures. A diet that is low in calcium and vitamin D can also contribute to bone loss, as these nutrients are essential for bone health. A lack of exercise can also increase the risk of osteoporosis in women. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, running and weightlifting, can help strengthen bones and prevent bone loss. Women who are sedentary are more likely to develop osteoporosis, as are women who have a low body weight or who have experienced significant weight loss.
Some medical conditions can increase the risk of osteoporosis in women. For example, women who have had their ovaries removed are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, and men and women both are at an increased risk if they suffer from hyperthyroidism or inflammatory bowel disease.
So, what can be done to minimise the risk of osteoporosis? You can take several steps to keep your bones healthy and strong. These include:
- Getting enough calcium and vitamin D through diet or supplements.
- Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption.
- Exercising regularly, particularly weight-bearing exercises and resistance training.
- Talking to your healthcare provider about any medical conditions or medications that may increase the risk of osteoporosis.
- Getting regular bone density screenings to detect any signs of bone loss early on.
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