Most of us consider osteoporosis a bone disease afflicting the elderly; not anything a busy young woman should worry about. But, research is showing that women in their 20's and 30's are at risk for developing this brittle bone disease.
Osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis, is sometimes called the "young woman's silent epidemic" because many young women fail to realize they are susceptible to bone loss.
A study done by the University of Arkansas shows that two percent of college-age women already have osteoporosis - that's women in their late teens and early twenties. A further 15 percent have sustained significant losses in bone density and are well on their way to developing the disease.
"Bones reach their peak mass around the age of 30," said Geoffrey Collins, MD, orthopedic surgeon with the Center for Orthopaedics. "Estrogen protects bones and stimulates their growth. But some young women are at greater risk than others for brittle bones. Recognizing the problem is the first step in reversing this trend."
One common method of birth control, Depo-Provera, is associated with significant bone loss, especially with long-term use. In fact, a warning is included on the label. This medication is injected every few months, making it more convenient, and thus more appealing, than taking a daily pill. The maker of Depo-Provera, Pfizer, along with the Food and Drug Administration, advise women to not take the medication for longer than two years, citing issues with bone loss.
Low body weight is also a contributing factor for osteoporosis in young women. "Some women in this age group avoid exercise because they don't want to ‘bulk up' their muscle mass," said Dr. Collins. "Their low body weight exerts less pressure on their bones, so their bodies have no reason to maintain bone strength."
Young women who had participated in high school athletics had the highest bone densities. This finding underscores the importance of exercise and physical education during the school years. "Weight-bearing exercising like walking, aerobics, sports, and weight training, are the best overall way to strengthen bones," he said. Nutritional supplements have also been shown to boost bone health. Combining calcium with vitamin D is a good idea, as they work in tandem to increase bone health. In addition, there are medications available to combat osteoporosis.
When it comes to osteoporosis, risk factors for young women include:
Dr. Collins said that while osteoporosis affects men and women alike, women are more prone to developing brittle bones because they don't develop as much bone in their younger years. And, the rate of bone loss is greater than in men.
Osteoporosis is usually found either during a routine examination or following a fractured bone. X-rays can show a generalized loss of bone density. This disease inflicts more than physical pain, it takes a toll on a woman's emotional health.
"This is not a natural part of aging," Dr. Collins said. "Young women need to understand the risks and if they are susceptible to it, then change their lifestyle while they have time."