Avoid the bone-sucking disease

Just mention blood-sucking leeches and most people cringe. But another unseen and dangerous process leaches calcium from our bones. Unlike cancer and heart disease, osteoporosis (brittle bones) doesn’t get top billing, but every year it disables and kills thousands of Canadians. Its misery can be prevented by a diet with a high calcium-to-protein ratio.

Ironically, osteoporosis is considered a disease of the elderly, but since developing strong bones starts early in life, it’s really a pediatric concern. I often remind patients that wise investors start saving at an early age to assure security later in life. Similarly, those who build up stores of calcium in their bones early on will still have strong bones as seniors, even though we all lose calcium with age.

Most people give little attention to bones. Unlike muscles and the heart, the human skeleton seems unchanging. But bones are constantly being reshaped throughout a lifetime. Up to age 35, more bone is formed than absorbed. Later, because the rate of absorption exceeds the formation of new bone, everyone gradually loses bone mass.

Men lose bone mass, too
For instan, once menopause begins, women lose one-and-a-half per cent of their bone mass every year. As male hormone levels decrease with age, men too lose bone and are more prone to fractures.

Canadians are at increased risk of osteoporosis if they’re thin, small-boned, Caucasian couch potatoes who use too much tobacco and alcohol. Others who are on prednisone, cortisone, anticonvulsants, aluminum-containing antacids and some diuretics (water pills) are more prone to fractures. A British study of 500,000 patients using corticosteroids showed the medication quadrupled the risk of vertebral fracture and doubled the risk of hip fracture.

Osteoporosis can strike unexpectedly. One elderly man remarked, “I was just sitting in a chair, suddenly coughed and broke a rib.” Another patient suffered a fractured rib when her husband gave her a big hug.

Osteoporosis primarily affects the spinal vertebrae and bones of the hip and wrist, causing bones to shrink. So start thinking osteoporosis if you discover your pants have become too long. In extreme cases, patients with osteoporosis can lose as much as six inches in height.

To protect bones, the best treatment is an adequate amount of calcium and protein in your diet. Researchers say a ratio of 20 milligrams of calcium to one of protein is appropriate. Milk provides a ratio of 36:1, making it the ideal bone-building food. Yet I have to continually remind older patients that milk isn’t just for kids.

Vitamin D is also essential for bone health as it increases the intestinal absorption of calcium. Studies show that seniors often fail to receive sufficient amounts of vitamin D because they’re not exposed to enough sunlight during the winter months or they’re housebound. They’re ideal candidates for vitamin D supplements.

Prevention is key
Exercise builds bone. There’s no better example than the person who loses an arm: the bones of the other arm invariably increase in size because of the extra exercise.

What role the male hormone testosterone will play in treating osteoporosis is not known. But men who have lost the tiger-in-the-tank and who show signs of early osteoporosis should ask their doctor about this hormone. In Canada, Andriol, a pill form of testosterone, is available. And there are a number of med- ications, such as Fosamax and Evista, for those men and women who have already developed osteoporosis.

Unfortunately, this year many seniors will fall and break a hip. And the consequences are serious. Sadly, 25 per cent of these people will die within six months. Another 50 per cent will end their lives in wheelchairs. A mere 25 per cent return to a normal lifestyle. Simple prevention is the key to ending this tragedy.