Your bones are the support system for your body. Although you may think that bones are similar to rocks, the reality is that bone is a living, growing tissue in your body.
Strong bones are important for your overall health. But if you are a woman, your risk of developing weak or brittle bones is much higher than if you are a man.
Osteoporosis is a condition that results when your body loses bone too fast or doesn’t make enough new bone to keep your bones strong and healthy.
Although we tend to think of bones as being solid, they actually look like a honeycomb with small holes and spaces, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. With osteoporosis, the spaces in the bones get larger.
Bone density is the term used to describe this ratio between strong bones and open space. Bones with higher density are stronger while bones with lower density become weak or brittle and are more prone to breakage.
According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, women have twice the risk of developing osteoporosis that men do.
The Foundation estimates that half of all women over age 50 will have osteoporosis, while only 25 percent of men will develop the disease and "approximately one in two women over age 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis."
There are several factors that may affect this gender difference.
In general, women reach their maximum bone mass by about age 18 while men continue building bone mass until they are 20. (3)
Your body naturally works to replace bone cells throughout your life to keep your bones strong and healthy. But after age 30, that process begins to slow.
Estrogen levels also affect the way the body replaces bone. At menopause, when a woman’s estrogen levels dramatically decrease, women begin to lose bone mass much more quickly.
When bone loss occurs faster than bone is replaced, your bone density decreases, and you could develop osteoporosis.
A bone density test, which may also be called a test for osteoporosis, is an easy way for your doctor to determine how strong your bones are. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) is a special kind of X-ray that can see inside the bone better than the X-rays used to look for a broken bone.
The DXA test is typically used to look at the density of the bones in your hips and lower spine. These are the bones that are most likely to break if you have osteoporosis, and are also the bones that can cause more pain and disability if they do break.
DXA testing uses a very low dose of radiation to give your doctor an early look at your bone health. If your bone density is lower than it should be, your doctor can prescribe medications or diet changes to improve your bone health and help prevent future broken bones.
Weak bones may not sound like a significant concern. But as you get older, weak bones can result in serious illness or even death.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports that 20 percent of seniors who break a hip die within a year due to complications from the broken bone or from the surgery to fix it. A broken hip may also lead to an extended stay in a long-term nursing home.
Although women are at higher risk for osteoporosis, bone density testing is important for men and women. If you are over age 50, are in menopause, or have other known risk factors, talk to your health care provider about whether it might be the right time for a bone density test.
Reviewed May 18, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Bone Density Exam/Testing. National Osteoporosis Foundation. Web. May 17, 2016.
2) Why Osteoporosis is More Common in Women. Everyday Health. Madeline Vann, MPH. Web. May 17, 2016.
3) What is Ostoeporosis and What Causes It? National Osteoporosis Foundation. Web. May 17, 2016.