Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones deteriorate or become brittle and fragile due to low bone mass and bone tissue loss.
The condition is often referred to as a “silent disease” because you cannot feel your bones getting weaker, and many people don't even know they have the condition until after they break a bone.
Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures, particularly of the hips, spine, and wrists. In fact, osteoporosis causes an estimated nine million fractures each year worldwide. (1)
Symptoms of Osteoporosis
In its early stages, osteoporosis generally causes no symptoms.
But in many cases the first symptom a person may have is a broken bone, often as a result of a fall, and most frequently in the spine, wrist, hips, or pelvis.
Over time, a person with osteoporosis may notice back pain, loss of height, a stooped posture, and easily-occurring bone fractures.
Learn More About Osteoporosis Symptoms
Numerous factors are associated with a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Some people who develop osteoporosis have several risk factors, but others have none. Some risk factors are inherent and cannot be changed. These factors include:
- Being a woman, particularly in your postmenopausal years
- Having a family history of fractures
- Being age 50 or older
- Having small or thin bones
- Being Caucasian or Asian
- Having low estrogen levels (from menopause or missing menstrual periods) in women, or low testosterone in men
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Anorexia or bulimia
- Dietary deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D
- Lack of exercise
- Long-term use of certain drugs, including glucocorticoids and some anticonvulsants
Learn More About Causes and Risk Factors of Osteoporosis
Duration of Osteoporosis
There's no cure for osteoporosis — once it develops, it's a lifelong condition — but you can work to protect and strengthen your bones. The right treatment plan, including weight-bearing and muscle-building exercise, a healthy diet, and medication, can slow further bone loss.
Prevention of Osteoporosis
About 85 to 90 percent of adult bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and 20 in boys, so building strong bones during childhood and adolescence can help prevent osteoporosis later in life, notes the NOF. (8)
There are some lifestyle choices you can make to help prevent osteoporosis, such as:
Not Smoking In addition to being harmful to the heart and lungs, smoking is also bad for bones, since those who smoke may absorb less calcium from the foods they eat.
Avoiding Drinking Alcohol in Excess People who drink a lot of alcohol are more prone to bone loss and broken bones due to poor diet and risk of falling.
Following a Healthy Diet Following a nutritious diet that is rich in calcium and vitamin D is critical to bone health.
Performing Weight-Bearing Exercise Physical activities that force you to work against gravity, such as walking and hiking, strengthen your bones and your muscles.
Learn More About Osteoporosis Prevention Strategies
Healthy Diet for Osteoporosis: Calcium and Vitamin D
While a broad range of nutrients contribute to bone health, two in particular merit discussion: calcium and vitamin D.
Calcium A lack of calcium in the body over time contributes to the development of osteoporosis. Researchers have shown that low calcium intake is connected to low bone mass, rapid bone loss, and high fracture rates.
Throughout life, the body needs different levels of calcium. The body's need for calcium is highest during childhood and adolescence because the skeleton is growing rapidly. Pregnant women and those breastfeeding also need a lot of calcium, as do postmenopausal women and older men.
As you age, your body becomes less efficient at absorbing calcium and other nutrients. Plus, the older you are, the more likely you are to take medication for various health conditions, and those drugs can interfere with calcium being absorbed into the body. (3)
The NIH notes that national nutrition surveys report that many Americans consume less than half of the recommended amount of calcium. (3) Foods that are good sources of calcium include:
- Low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream
- Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, collard greens, bok choy, and spinach
- Sardines and salmon with bones
- Tofu made with calcium sulfate
- Calcium-fortified foods, such as orange juice, soy milk, cereals, and breads
If you don't get enough calcium from food, you may need to take a calcium supplement. Talk with your doctor about the right amount to take for your body.
Vitamin D Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium from both food and supplements. It helps your muscles move, because nerves need vitamin D to carry messages from your body to your brain. Your immune system also needs vitamin D to fight against bacteria and viruses.
Do You Need a Vitamin D Supplement?
Many people get some vitamin D naturally from the sunlight — the body makes vitamin D when skin is directly exposed to the sun. But studies show that vitamin D production decreases in the elderly and those who are housebound, as well as in all people during the winter. Food sources that provide vitamin D include egg yolks, saltwater fish, and liver.
The amount of vitamin D you need varies depending on your age and, for women, whether or not you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends these average daily amounts in international units (IU): (9)
- Birth to 12 months: 400 IU
- Children 1–13 years: 600 IU
- Teens 14–18 years: 600 IU
- Adults 19–70 years: 600 IU
- Adults 71 years and older: 800 IU
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 600 IU
Learn More About Healthy Eating When You Have Osteoporosis
Related Conditions of Osteoporosis
Osteopenia Often Precedes Osteoporosis
Bone mineral density that is lower than normal but not low enough to be considered osteoporosis is called osteopenia.
Osteopenia shares the same risk factors as osteoporosis, and it raises the risk of developing osteoporosis. But not everyone who has osteopenia goes on to develop osteoporosis.
Generally, treatment for osteopenia includes weight-bearing exercise, adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, and other lifestyle measures.
Learn More About Osteopenia
Sometimes osteoporosis is caused by a medical condition or treatment that affects bone mass and causes bone loss. This is called secondary osteoporosis. Some disorders can also cause the bone marrow cavity to expand at the expense of the trabecular bone — the inner layer of bone that has a spongy, honeycomb-like structure. When this happens, the trabecular bone loses some of its strength. (10)
Diseases and disorders that can cause secondary osteoporosis may include:
- Serious kidney failure
- Cushing's disease
- Liver impairment
- Anorexia nervosa and bulimia
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Celiac disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Metastatic bone diseases
The following drugs or chemicals can also cause osteoporosis:
- Corticosteroid therapy
- Antacids containing aluminum
- Tobacco (when used excessively)
- Alcohol (when used excessively)
Treatment for secondary osteoporosis can be complex and may focus on treating the underlying condition or disease causing it. Other methods may include those used to prevent osteoporosis from developing.
Research and Statistics on Osteoporosis
As the most common type of bone disease, osteoporosis affects approximately 10 million Americans, and another 44 million people have low bone density, which puts them at risk for the disease, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. (10,11)
While osteoporosis mainly affects women, men can also develop the condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it affects about 25 percent (1 in 4) of women 65 and over and around 5 percent (1 in 20) of men 65 and over. (12)
Fracture prevention is a key area of focus in osteoporosis research, including the use of supplements. A meta-analysis published in December 2019 in JAMA Network Open found that fracture risk could be cut significantly by taking vitamin D and calcium supplements together, but there were no benefits observed from supplementing with vitamin D alone. (13)
Current clinical trials suggest that researchers are also looking for better ways of screening for osteoporosis, new drugs for treating it (or better ways of administering currently used drugs), and the value of various forms of exercise in treating osteoporosis and preventing falls and fractures.
Resources We Love
Favorite Bone Health Basics
NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center
Whether you’re reeling from a diagnosis or have just heard you’re at risk of osteoporosis because of a condition such as lupus or celiac disease, this resource gives you the basic information you need to understand your situation and take action.
National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF)
Having your bone density tested is pretty straightforward, but understanding your results often isn’t. Luckily, the NOF lays it out in plain terms so you know where you stand.
Favorite Osteoporosis Podcast and Videos
If you like to learn from podcasts, this project of the National Osteoporosis Foundation is for you. It features interviews with doctors and caregivers as well as tips from women living with osteoporosis.
Own the Bone
Real people talk about real experiences with osteoporosis-related fractures in these videos from the American Orthopaedic Association.
Favorite Osteoporosis Online Community
American Bone Health
When you need support and answers from other people living with osteoporosis, this is the place to find them. American Bone Health has teamed up with HealthUnlocked to create a moderated, online, peer-to-peer osteoporosis community. Also look for live “Freedom from Fractures” events in your community.
Fall Prevention 101
Falls can be devastating, but they can also be prevented, as this article from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) explains. Understanding your risk factors and making healthy lifestyle choices, including engaging in regular exercise, can go a long way toward staying upright.
Favorite Info Source for Girls
Best Bones Forever!
Help the girls in your life start healthy bone habits early with this special page on the American Bone Health website. Interested girls will learn what bones are made of, how to keep them strong, and what can weaken them.
Favorite Exercise and Osteoporosis Resources
Harvard Women’s Health Watch
If you just need a place to start, the three exercises illustrated in this article will fit the bill, focusing on the major muscle areas that keep you upright when standing.
International Osteoporosis Foundation
For a more comprehensive set of exercise recommendations, this is the place to go. However, you may need to seek out an exercise professional to put all of these recommendations in place in your own routine.
American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
A physical therapist (PT) can help you learn exercises that will help prevent falling and fractures, as well as exercises that will help you regain mobility and function after a fracture. Learn more about PTs and the conditions they can help with.
Favorite Vitamin D Resources
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements
While the vitamin D fact sheet on this site is written for health professionals, it still has a lot of good information for consumers who want to know what foods contain vitamin D and how sun exposure can raise your vitamin D levels. The NIH also offers a page of Frequently Asked Questions about the use and safety of dietary supplements.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
For an exhaustive list of foods containing vitamin D, and how much, use the USDA Food Composition Databases. First click “Nutrient Search,” then use the “First Nutrient” menu to select “Vitamin D,” then click “Go.”
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Perhaps you don’t want an exhaustive list of foods containing vitamin D. That’s where the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 can help, with a list of nearly 40 common foods and their vitamin D content.
MedlinePlus aggregates links to other sources of info, so if you have a specific vitamin D question or want to dig deeper into vitamin D knowledge, check out the links here.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Johnell O, Kanis JA. An Estimate of the Worldwide Prevalence and Disability Associated With Osteoporotic Fractures. Osteoporosis International. December 2006.
- What Causes Bone Loss? MedlinePlus. May 17, 2018.
- Osteoporosis Overview. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. October 2018.
- Bone Density Exam/Testing. National Osteoporosis Foundation.
- World Health Organization — WHO Criteria for Diagnosis of Osteoporosis. 4BoneHealth.org.
- Welcome to FRAX. FRAX Fracture Risk Assessment Tool.
- Eastell R, Rosen C, Black DM, et al. Pharmacological Management of Osteoporosis in Postmenopausal Women: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. May 2019.
- Osteoporosis Fast Facts. National Osteoporosis Foundation. December 2015.
- Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health. August 7, 2019.
- Secondary Osteoporosis. International Osteoporosis Foundation.
- Osteoporosis — Overview. MedlinePlus. January 19, 2019.
- Does Osteoporosis Run in Your Family? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 5, 2019.
- Yao P, Bennett D, Mafham M, et al. Vitamin D and Calcium for the Prevention of Fracture: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA Network Open. December 20, 2019.
- USDA Food Composition Databases