Osteoporosis, the most common type of bone disease, causes your bones to become weak and fracture. Most often, fractures occur in your wrist, spine and hip. How can you improve your bone health, reduce your risk of osteoporosis and protect your bones at every age?

"You need to build strong bones to last a lifetime," says Robert Klein, M.D., an expert in osteoporosis and a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore. "It's easier to maintain the strength of your bones than try to recover bone that's been lost."

Dr. Klein explains that bone health begins at birth. "From the time you're a baby, you need adequate amounts of calcium, vitamin D and enough physical activity to achieve bone strength." He adds that you achieve your highest level of bone strength in your mid-20s and from that point on you're at risk for losing bone mass.

Controlling the risk factors

Here are some tips from Dr. Klein to help you avoid bone loss and prevent osteoporosis by managing the risk factors you're able to control.

1. Choose foods rich in calcium: Low-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), dark-green leafy vegetables and soy products all have calcium. Get three or more adult-size portions of calcium-rich foods, spread throughout the day. If you can't get enough calcium in food, ask your doctor about supplements that might work best for you.

2. Get enough vitamin D: Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. It's hard to get enough vitamin D from food and sunshine, so you may need a vitamin supplement. The recommended dosage for vitamin D is generally 400-600 International Units (IU) per day for kids and 1,000 IU per day for adults. Your doctor can check your vitamin D level with a blood test and help you figure out how to get enough.

3. Be physically active every day: Weight-bearing exercises (activities that put stress on bones) are the best. But any type of physical activity improves muscle strength, balance and coordination. That includes mall walking, stair climbing, gardening, dancing, aerobics and tai chi. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity for children and at least 30 minutes a day for adults.

4. Reduce your risk of falls: Taking steps to avoid falls can reduce your risk of fractures if you have bone loss or osteoporosis. Check your home for loose rugs, poor lighting and other hazards. Take classes to improve your balance and strength. Get more tips from HealthFinder.gov.

5. Don't smoke: In addition to causing many other health problems, smoking contributes to weak bones and increases your risk of osteoporosis. If you don't smoke, that's great--don't start. If you smoke, get help for breaking the habit.

6. Drink alcohol in moderation: Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of osteoporosis. Researchers think that too much alcohol reduces your body's ability to absorb calcium. If you drink, do so in moderation--up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

7. Control your body weight: If you're too thin or anorexic, you're more likely to get osteoporosis. If you're having problems with low body weight, talk to your doctor.

8. Know if medication you take affects your bone health: Certain medications for asthma, arthritis, cancer, seizures and other conditions may affect your bone health. Discuss any side-effects of your medication with your health care provider. Ask about getting a bone density test to evaluate your overall risk for an osteoporotic fracture.

9. Keep an eye on hormone levels as you age: As your hormone levels decrease, your risk of osteoporosis increases. Women need to check their estrogen levels, especially after menopause. Men should check their testosterone levels. Decreased hormone levels lead to bone loss and osteoporosis. Ask your doctor about ways to address decreasing hormone levels in relation to bone health.

10. Get bone density screenings: All women 65 and older should have a bone density screening. Some men and women under 65 may need one too. The test is based on a variety of factors, including:

  • Using medication that increases bone loss
  • Having a condition or disorder that decreases hormone levels, such as thyroid disease
  • Undergoing treatment for osteoporosis (to see if the treatment is working)
  • Fracturing a bone after age 50, which indicates a fragile skeleton

Other important factors

Managing controllable risk factors is important, but there also are risk factors for osteoporosis that you can't control, including:

  • Age: Your risk increases as you get older
  • Gender: Women have twice as many fractures as men from osteoporosis
  • Ethnic group: White and Asian women have a higher risk
  • Family history: Having a close family member with osteoporosis puts you at higher risk, more so if you have a family history of fractures

"If you're at risk for or diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are a variety of safe and effective treatment options that can be tailored to your situation," says Dr. Klein. "Ask your health care provider to help you pick one that is best for you."

Learn more about osteoporosis at the National Osteoporosis Foundation and NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disorders National Resource Center.


Barbara Schuetze

Barbara Schuetze is a Portland, Ore., freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness topics. She has written for most of the major health systems in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and on the Web. She has been writing professionally since 1983.