Osteoporosis, meaning porous bones, is known as a “silent” disease because it typically doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. That means many people aren’t diagnosed with osteoporosis until after they’ve already broken a bone.
Bones are made up of living cells that reach their top strength and thickness around age 30. Bone mass slowly declines in the following decades for men and women, but women lose bone density at a faster rate after menopause.
The inside of bone has a sponge-like or honeycomb appearance. With osteoporosis, the openings separating the “walls” of the honeycomb become larger as the bone loses density.
People with osteoporosis are at greater risk of breaking bones in a fall, or even when bumping into furniture or as a result of subtle movements like sneezing or coughing.
How Long Can You Live with Untreated Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis can go undetected for many years without symptoms until it causes a broken bone. Someone experiencing bone loss from osteoporosis has a higher risk of fractures.
Untreated osteoporosis can lead to severe bone fractures, most commonly in the wrists, hips, and spine, even after minor bumps or falls.
One-third of women will experience a broken bone caused by osteoporosis over their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health.
A broken hip can require surgery and cause severe pain and disability. Fractures of the spine also can lead to severe pain and require surgery along with causing stooped posture and curvature of the back.
How Fast Does Osteoporosis Progress?
During menopause, women experiencing osteoporosis can lose bone mass quickly over several years. The bone loss is progressive but slows down after menopause.
Men are less likely to develop osteoporosis and generally lose bone mass more slowly than women, although the rate for both sexes is considered essentially the same after age 65 or 70, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Left untreated, osteoporosis progresses at an even faster rate.
Can You Cure or Reverse Osteoporosis?
There is no cure for osteoporosis but there are several treatments and lifestyle changes that can help prevent further bone loss or even increase bone mass.
Anyone can promote their bone health by including enough calcium, protein, and vitamin D in their diet through leafy green vegetables, low-fat dairy, fish, and fortified grains. Supplements of calcium and/or vitamin D may also be needed to meet the recommended intake. Staying active with weight-bearing and balancing exercises such as yoga is also helpful.
What Are the Most Common Treatments for Osteoporosis?
There are several prescription and over-the-counter therapies that are commonly recommended for the treatment of osteoporosis:
- Bisphosphonates are a class of prescription drugs that can slow the rate of bone loss and even help restore bone mass over several years of treatment. When taken as prescribed, the drugs have proven highly effective with rare side effects that can include upset stomach.
- Calcitonin, a hormone that helps regulate calcium levels in the body, has been shown to slow the rate of bone loss.
- Denosumab is an injectable drug for postmenopausal women to help build bone strength and reduce bone loss in osteoporosis.
- Menopausal hormone therapy, such as estrogen replacement therapy, may help prevent or slow the rate of bone loss.
- Non-prescription calcium and vitamin D supplements along with exercise can be beneficial for people with osteoporosis.
- Teriparatide, or parathyroid hormone, is an injectable hormone that can help increase bone mass.
How Can You Tell If Your Osteoporosis Treatment Is Working?
A bone mineral density scan or bone density test can measure the amount of calcium and other minerals in the bones, either to diagnose osteoporosis or to see if treatments are working. It can also offer a risk assessment for bone fractures. The scans are recommended for all women 65 and older.
The scans use low-dosage X-rays. A scan for larger areas including spine and hips is called central dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). Another type of scan, peripheral DEXA, can check bone density in smaller bones including hands, feet, and wrists. Peripheral DEXA machines are commonly seen in pharmacies or drug stores.
The test result is called a T-score, which determines if someone has osteoporosis or a milder case of low bone density known as osteopenia.
Anyone taking the test should avoid taking calcium supplements for 24 hours prior.
What Are Some Other Tips for Living Well with Osteoporosis?
A healthy diet and lifestyle can help support healthy, strong bones. Anyone who has osteoporosis (or is trying to prevent it) can follow these tips:
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.
- Limit alcoholic drinks.
- Stay physically active, particularly with weight-bearing exercises such as dancing, gardening, running, playing tennis, walking, and practicing yoga. It’s also important to include strength training, such as weightlifting.
- Talk to your doctor about your bone health and risk of falls, including side effects from medications that may affect these.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Osteoporosis?
The long-term effects of osteoporosis include a progressive loss of bone density, resulting in a higher risk of broken bones.
Bone loss leads to fractures or fissures, which cause pain and other symptoms depending on the site.
Spinal fractures can cause curvature of the back, loss in height, back pain, hunched shoulders, and stooped posture.
Broken hips can lead to a loss of independence, permanent disability, and even death.