Caregiver Guide: Bone Weakness

Understanding the Problem

As people age, their bones begin to thin and lose strength. Bone thinning is called osteopenia. Severe bone thinning to the point where a person is at a high risk for broken bones is called osteoporosis.

Up to age 75, osteoporosis is more common in women than in men. At that point, men “catch up.” Women who develop osteoporosis usually do so after menopause.  After menopause a woman's body stops producing estrogen, one of the hormones that keeps bones strong. Without estrogen, bones may become softer, weaker, and more likely to break. Women who have a family history of the disease, are thin, smoke, or did not take hormones after menopause are most at risk for osteoporosis.Warning signs of osteoporosis include loss of height or a stooped posture. However, most people are not aware of their bone loss until a bone is broken.

Other risk factors include a diet low in calcium and Vitamin D, lack of exercise, lack of exposure to the sun, smoking, excessive alcohol or caffeine use, a history of an overactive thyroid gland, and taking certain medicines such as corticosteroids and medicines used to treat seizures.

For reasons that are unclear, white people and Asian Americans are more likely to develop osteoporosis than African Americans. Older men are also at risk for osteoporosis, particularly after prolonged inactivity.

For people with osteoporosis, any little bump, trip, or fall may be all that is necessary to cause a broken wrist, hip, vertebra, or backbone.

Sometimes a bone can break first, and then the person falls. Also, an older person's bones may take longer to heal. 

Once a person has broken a bone, inactivity must be avoided at all costs.  Older people who are laid up for months healing a broken hip are unlikely to get back to their previous levels of activity. After that experience, they may be afraid to go out or walk.

For this reason, orthopedists recommend fixing most hip fractures by operating on them. The person can get up and start walking with the help of a physical therapist almost immediately.

Unfortunately, some older people who have fallen cut back on exercise for fear of falling again. Lack of exercise will further weaken bones and muscles and actually make falls more likely. So it is important for older people to be as active as possible, even after a fall.

Your goals are to:

  • Call the healthcare provider if the older person has a serious fall
  • Encourage proper diet and exercise
  • Strengthen bones
  • Prevent falls

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Last Updated July 2015

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