Osteoporosis is largely thought of as a women’s disease. The commercials are all aimed at women, and it seems that most of the people you know with severe bone loss are women.
After menopause the bone-building hormone estrogen drops off sharply. That’s when women are more likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis.
Even doctors tend to assume loss of bone density is less common among men.
Wrong. New research suggests men could be at the same or even greater risk of fragile bones and fractures than women.
Here’s what you need to know. . .
A study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association included 173 healthy men and women aged between 35 and 50.
Each filled out a questionnaire that took into account risk factors for bone loss such as calcium intake and levels of exercise. The researchers, from the University of Mississippi, assessed bone mineral density (BMD) using scans on five areas of the skeleton in the hip, thigh and lower back regions.
They found more than a quarter of the group — 26% of women and 28% of men — had some loss of bone, a condition called osteopenia. Only if the situation continues to deteriorate and crosses a certain threshold does the diagnosis change to osteoporosis.
Dr. Martha Bass, who led the team, said, “Almost all participants who were found to have osteopenia were surprised and I think this is a more prevalent issue than anyone expected.”
Men in Lycra Risk Crumbling Bones
She also added that people overvalue the importance of calcium in maintaining bone health.
“Calcium plays a larger role when bones are still developing. After that, the body begins to rely on weight-bearing exercise to keep bones strong. It really does boil down to use it or lose it.”
The high numbers of people with loss of bone density, and the finding that men experience a greater loss than women, were not the only surprises.
The more exercise men undertook, the greater the loss at the neck of the femur where it joins the hip. This is the opposite of what we’ve been led to believe. Isn’t exercise supposed to be protective?
The explanation is simple.
Many of the men who took part in the study were keen cyclists. As Dr. Bass has already pointed out, the body needs weight-bearing exercises such as walking, running, jumping and weight lifting. Cycling doesn’t fill the bill, so it won’t protect the bones.
Many Go Undiagnosed
There are many reasons other than lack of the correct exercise why men can lose BMD. Almost all of them would apply to women also.
Dr. Rod Hughes, a UK consultant rheumatologist, listed some of them:
Increased consumption of carbonated drinks, decreased intake of milk, vitamin D deficiency, low levels of testosterone, excess alcohol, heavy smoking, and malabsorption of minerals due to ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s or celiac disease. Family history may also play a role.
Other experts added that some medications, such as steroids, can affect bone density. Medical conditions such as leukemia, thyroid and kidney problems can also be detrimental.
Consultant orthopedic surgeon Panos Gikas added, “Clinicians don’t always have the same index of suspicion for the disease when they are treating men, so many go undiagnosed.
“If a man over 50 has a fracture from a low-impact fall — from standing height or below — then they should have a bone scan.”
Osteopenia does not inevitably lead to osteoporosis. In fact, the condition is considered reversible, but few men know they’re at risk.
The general population, the study authors wrote, “may not be adequately informed…or have little interest in getting scanned owing to fears about radiation exposure and cost.”
So they urge educational, prevention and screening programs targeted to people in the 35 to 50 age group, and they single out osteopathic practices as providing the “ideal setting” for these kinds of interventions.