Strong bones need more than calcium

April 24, 2012|Lynn Little

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become weak or even brittle. 

Anyone can develop osteoporosis; however, women are five times more likely — especially those who go through menopause before the age of 45 — to develop osteoporosis than men. There is no way to stop or cure osteoporosis, but there are things we can do to slow it down. 

Lowering the chances of developing osteoporosis can be done first by getting enough calcium. Americans in general, especially women, do not consume adequate calcium. Women and teen girls are often concerned about weight gain and do not drink milk or eat enough calcium-rich foods in their effort to control caloric intakes. A daily minimum of 1,000 milligrams of calcium from food and supplements is needed by most adults. Women older than 50 and men older than age 65 need 1,200 to 1,500 mg daily. 

Adequate calcium intake is necessary to build strong bones, but those with milk allergy or lactose intolerance might need to find alternate sources. Fortunately, there are a number of non-dairy sources of calcium. Constant attention to intakes of calcium will yield major rewards in terms of bone health for men and women, especially in later years. 

Lowering the chances of developing osteoporosis can also be helped by getting an adequate amount of vitamin D. Women younger than 50 years old need at least 200 IU (international units) of vitamin D. Women older than 50 need at least 400 IU of vitamin D. 

Another way to lower the chances of developing osteoporosis is to get exercise every day. Dr. Miriam Nelson, author of "Strong Women, Strong Bones," says, "Simply upping calcium consumption has never been shown to increase bone density or prevent fractures in older women." 

In addition to walking, Nelson encourages women to engage in two or three strength-training sessions weekly to halt bone loss and to possibly regain bone density. Although high-impact exercises such as jumping or stair climbing can help with bone density they can take their toll on joints and might need to be adapted or avoided entirely by people with joint problems or arthritic conditions. Exercises that assist in balance training can also be useful in preventing falls that lead to broken bones.

Bones that have thinned or become brittle because of aging or osteoporosis tend to break more easily. Women's smaller bodies generally have thinner bones than do men. This, added to their tendency to diet inappropriately, makes women more vulnerable to broken bones and osteoporosis as they age. Men, though not immune from the deterioration of thinning bones, might fare better because they generally have larger bones than women. However, men can and do develop osteoporosis.  

Today's health and nutrition professionals recommend that, in addition to eating a healthy diet based on Choose My Plate ( and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines ( ), we ingest adequate vitamin D and practice strength training to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. 

To learn more, visit FDA/Office of Women's Health and search for osteoporosis.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.

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