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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

HEALTH MATTERS—Osteoporosis – silent killer

Maintaining calcium intake is critical for healthy bones, says KAYLENE DOWERS.

A silent killer is stalking New Zealanders. Even though estimates say this disease has health costs totalling $1.15 billion every year and affects up to 80,000 people – few realise its significance.

It is osteoporosis. And it is preventable.

Many people know of the bone weakening disease osteoporosis, but most write it off as either a genetic certainty or simply a fact of life. In reality, avoiding this crippling disease is relatively easy and you should take action from early adulthood. Yet this year half of all New Zealand women over 60 will suffer an osteoporotic fracture. A third of all people who suffer an osteoporotic hip facture never recover full mobility. A quarter will die within a year. More New Zealand women die from osteoporosis-related complications than from breast cancer.

There are two significant reasons osteoporosis is referred to as a silent disease. First, you usually don’t know you have it until disaster strikes. And second, nobody is really talking about it. We aim to change that.

I have heard many people say “my bones are fine, there is nothing wrong with me, I’ve never broken a bone in my life”. But once tested results can prove otherwise; their bones can be at a low density or high fracture risk.

Insidious ailment

So why does this disease go undetected? Our bones are like a storehouse for our body. Many people are unaware that every part of our body requires calcium to survive. Our nerve cells require calcium to work, our muscles require calcium to properly contract, and our immune system needs calcium to recognise disease.

If we do not feed our bodies enough calcium then our vital organs will start taking the supply from the bones. If the low calcium diet continues then the process of slowly depleting the bones begins.

You would expect there to be lots of symptoms for low calcium, such as muscle cramps, tiredness, easily getting sick, but there aren’t. Our body has the ability to keep us going for as long as our supply in the bones lasts. Osteoporosis happens before any of those. It is absolutely silent. But believe me, once you have osteoporosis you get all of these symptoms.

However, there are steps you can take to fight the disease. Even old bones can be brought back to full strength. The first step is to find out what condition your bones are in by having an ultrasound test.

There is always the chance to improve your bone health – bones regenerate. It is like restocking a storehouse, though it does take longer as we get older. So the earlier this is caught the easier it is to regenerate your bones. Each person checked is given an assessment and is advised of ways they can maintain or improve their bone density to avoid fracture risk.

There are very effective drugs available today if required. Common causes can be easily changed such as a lack of calcium, lack of exercise, smoking, alcohol, and caffeine use. However, there are other factors not so easy to change, like medications, family history or genes, being of a thin frame.

Tips for healthy bones

  • • 
    Calcium: From 20-50 the amount of calcium a person requires is 1000mg a day. If you are over 50 the amount is 1200mg. In my five years of checking people’s bones I would say that 95 per cent do not get enough calcium in their diet. While milk and dairy products do provide calcium, there are many other sources.
  • • 
    Exercise: This has a lot of benefits; extending life, improving health and strangely improving bones. In fact, for maintenance alone you need three hours’ exercise a week or 30 minutes a day of good bone-building exercise. These exercises need to add stress to the bones to make them stronger. Full body workouts are best.
  • • 
    Smoking: This damages your bones both directly and indirectly. If you want to live a healthy life, smoking is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
  • • 
    Alcohol: Kills your bones. There is a straight line relationship – the more you booze, the more bone dies. Large amounts in a single dose can cause some very nasty damage. On the upside, low levels may actually be beneficial. But let’s clarify low levels: a can of beer or glass of wine, maybe every other night – not a bottle a day.

KAYLENE DOWERS is the director of Bone Health Checks which offers a nationwide screening service to test bone density and detecting osteoporosis.

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