Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is when your bones become thin, lose density, and become increasingly fragile. Osteoporosis is a process that develops gradually over many years as we age.
Our bones are made of living tissue. Our bodies are constantly renewing and repairing bone tissue. There are bone cells that break down old damaged bone. That allows other bone cells called osteoblasts to produce healthy new bone in place of the old bone. This process of bone removal and renewal is called “bone remodeling” or “bone turnover.” Bone remodeling occurs in response to physical stress or damage. This can be caused from exercise or simply from the weight of our bodies. This can also be caused by hormones and other chemicals circulating in our blood. Thanks to bone remodeling, our damaged bones are repaired and stay healthy.
However, bone remodeling becomes unbalanced as we age. More bone is lost than new bone is formed. This age-related bone loss is especially noticeable in women after menopause, when the hormone estrogen is no longer produced. Older women can lose up to 7% of their bone mass every year.
Older men also lose bone, when less of the hormone testosterone is produced. However, the bone loss is more gradual in men.
Often osteoporosis has no symptoms and you may be unaware that your bones have become thin and unstable.
Osteoporosis Can Lead to Fractures
The first sign that bones are thin or fragile may be a sudden fracture. This can happen after a minor bump, strain, fall, bend, or even a cough. A fracture usually means that your osteoporosis is serious.
Half of patients with hip fractures have walking problems. About one quarter of people with hip fractures is unable to live independently afterwards. A hip fracture is one of the main reasons that older people move into nursing homes. Spinal fractures also reduce quality of life, and may make it hard to bathe, dress, or walk independently. Such fractures also increase the risk of a fall.
It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about testing and treatments for osteoporosis.
The Most Common Types of Bone Loss
There are three common types of bone thinning:
- Osteopenia - This is moderate bone loss with an increased risk of fracture.
- Osteoporosis - This is more severe bone loss associated with a higher risk of fracture.
- Osteomalacia - This is bone loss that is much less common than osteoporosis or osteopenia. It refers to problems of bone mineralization. Osteomalacia causes pain, muscle weakness, and fractures. In older adults, a lack of vitamin D is at the root of most cases. It also may result from kidney or liver disease, overuse of some medications, or problems absorbing nutrients through the intestines.
How Common is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is the most common bone disease. It affects approximately 10 million people of all ethnic backgrounds in the US. Another 43 million people have osteopenia (less severe bone loss). Osteoporosis affects men and women, but most cases are diagnosed in women (about 80%. Research has found that about one out of every five American women over the age of 50 already has osteoporosis.
Updated: November 2017
Posted: March 2012