Osteoporosis (bone loss) is sometimes called a silent disease because bone loss gradually happens without you easily seeing or feeling it. You may not know that you have bone loss until your bones become so weak that a sudden strain, bump or fall causes a hip to break or part of your spine to collapse.

In the United States, more than 40 million people either already have bone loss or are at high risk of having it because of low bone mass. Some factors make it more likely that you'll lose bone strength. You can't change some of those things: gender, age, body size, ethnicity and family history. Here's what you can change:

  • Calcium and vitamin D: Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D can make it more likely your bones will lose strength.
  • Medication use: Long-term use of certain medications can cause bone loss and lead to broken bones.
  • Lifestyle: An inactive lifestyle or extended bed rest tends to weaken bones.
  • Cigarette smoking: Smoking is bad for bones as well as the heart and lungs.
  • Alcohol intake: Drinking too much alcohol can make it more likely your bones will lose strength or break.

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

A bone mineral density test is the best way to check your bone health. The test is fast, easy and painless. The test can:

  • Diagnose bone loss and tell you whether you are likely to break a bone.
  • Check bone strength.
  • Determine whether treatments are making the bones stronger.

It's important to detect low bone density before you break a bone. In addition, if you are diagnosed with bone loss and are treated, the test helps your doctor see how fast you are losing bone strength or gaining it so that your doctor can treat your bone loss best.

How is osteoporosis treated?

Treating bone loss includes eating well, exercising and being mindful of safety issues so that you can prevent falls that may cause broken bones. In addition, your doctor may prescribe a medication to slow or stop bone loss, increase bone density and lower the chance that you might break a bone.

Can osteoporosis be prevented?

To help keep your bones healthy and slow down bone loss:

  • Eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not drink alcohol excessively or smoke.

When should you talk to your doctor about osteoporosis?

Talk to your doctor if:

  • You are over age 50. The risk of bone loss increases with age.
  • You are a woman. Women have a higher risk of bone loss than do men, but both men and women can develop it.
  • You have lost height, developed a stooped posture or experienced sudden back pain for no obvious reason.
  • You have been taking medications such as prednisone or cortisone for two months or longer or are taking other medications known to cause bone loss.
  • You have a chronic illness.
  • You have anorexia nervosa or a history of this eating disorder.
  • You are a premenopausal woman, not pregnant, and your menstrual periods have stopped, are irregular or never started when you reached puberty.

Take time to talk about your risks of bone loss with your doctor. If you have osteoporosis, you can take steps to lessen bone loss.

Published on Dec. 15, 2012; updated on May 5, 2014.