Although I am of the belief that there are very few downsides to getting older because, at age 46, things are just beginning to rock and roll for me, there is one thing that naturally happens to our bodies that is rather difficult to avoid. As people grow older, their bones become thinner, usually in middle age (please define middle age and let me know when I get there!), as the existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body much quicker than new bone is formed. When this happens, the bones lose minerals, mass, and structure, making them weaker and more susceptible to fractures. Peak bone mineral density is reach around age 30, after which time, we begin to lose bone mass. However, if you are blessed with thicker bones at that age, it will take longer for osteopenia or osteoporosis to develop.
So, what is osteopenia? This condition refers to bone mineral density, or BMD, that is lower than the normal peak BMD, but still not quite low enough to be considered osteoporosis. BMD is a measurement of the level of minerals in the bones, giving indication as to their strength and density. If you are diagnosed with osteopenia, it can mean that you have a greater risk, as time passes, for developing BMD that is low enough to be classified as osteoporosis.
Some people who are diagnosed with osteopenia may not necessarily have bone loss. They might just naturally have lower bone density. Osteopenia can also be the result of many other conditions, disease processes, or treatments. Osteopenia is more common in women than in men, mainly because women have a lower peak BMD and because hormonal changes during menopause speed up bone mass loss.
Because it bears no obvious symptoms, if you do have osteopenia, you will most likely not notice pain or change as your bones become thinner, but you should be aware that the risk of breaking a bone increases as the bones becomes less dense.
Who is at risk for osteopenia? If you have a family history of osteoporosis, being thin, white, or Asian and have limited physical activity, you can be at risk. Even habits such as smoking, drinking sodas, and alcohol can contribute to the onset of the disease. Other risks include eating disorders or a metabolism that does not let the body absorb and use sufficient vitamins and minerals. Exposure to radiation or chemotherapy can be contributing factors.
To diagnose osteopenia, a bone mineral density test (BMD) is conducted to determine to see if you have osteoporosis. A standard x-ray is not an effective tool in diagnosing osteopenia because it is not sensitive enough to detect the minute amounts of bone loss or the small changes in bone density. The most accurate test of BMD, although not the only test, is the dual-energy x-ray absorptiomety, or DEXA. This particular type of x-ray can detect even as little as two percent bone loss per year. To obtain more information on BMD testing procedures, research the topic of osteoporosis.
(Information for this article was found at http://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/tc/osteopenia-overview)