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Osteoporosis and your bone health

Osteoporosis is a progressive fragile bone condition that is widely known as the silent disease as it typically has no symptoms. A bone fracture is often the first indication of this very common condition which affects one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50.

Around three million people are living with osteoporosis in the UK and many more could have the condition but just don’t know it. Osteoporosis gradually weakens bones and tends to develop slowly over several years. It’s typically only diagnosed when a person has a fall or experiences a sudden impact that causes a bone to break. Although it’s possible to fracture various parts of your body – the wrists, hips and spine tend to be the most commonly affected areas. Although a broken bone is the most common warning sign, height loss and curvature of the spine can also indicate osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis risk factors

There isn’t a single cause of osteoporosis but there are a number of risk factors that can increase your likelihood of developing the condition. These include:

  • Age (being over 50)
  • Menopause – your level of oestrogen declines after menopause, decreasing bone density
  • Low body mass index (BMI)
  • Having a family history of osteoporosis
  • A previous fracture at a site characteristic of osteoporotic fractures such as the wrists and hips
  • Early menopause (going through menopause before the age of 45)
  • Long-term use of certain medications such as high-dose corticosteroids
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Lack of physical activity – leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Low calcium intake

Some diseases are also known to be associated with osteoporosis such as rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism, Crohn’s, coeliac disease and diabetes.

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Preventing osteoporosis

While it’s your genes that determine your height and the strength of your skeleton, diet and exercise both play a huge role in improving your bone health. Regular exercise helps to keep your bones strong and it’s also beneficial for your all-round health and wellbeing. Adding in weight-bearing exercises will also help to improve your bone density. Examples of weight-bearing exercises which also help to strengthen your muscles, ligaments and joints include running, brisk walking, tennis, dancing and skipping.

Eating a healthy, balanced and varied diet is essential for good health to ensure you receive all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that your body needs. Calcium and vitamin D are especially important in preventing osteoporosis.

Calcium is a mineral that helps to maintain good bone health. Adults need around 700mg a day. Examples of calcium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, dried fruit, yoghurt, soya and tofu. When you aren’t getting enough calcium, low levels can cause you to feel extremely tired and sluggish, and you may also find you have difficulty sleeping.

Vitamin D is also important for healthy bones as it helps your body to absorb calcium. It’s known as the sunshine vitamin because we make most of our stores of this vital nutrient during spring and summer via the action of direct sunlight on the skin. Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods including egg yolk, oily fish, fortified breakfast cereals and red meat but it can be hard to get what you need via your diet alone. During the colder and darker months of autumn and winter, the Department of Health recommends that everyone takes a daily Vitamin D supplement (10mcg). When you aren’t getting enough vitamin D via your diet you might notice stiffness when you wake up, and more general aches and pains. You might also feel low on energy and a little rundown.

Other lifestyle steps you can take to improve your bone health include quitting smoking as this can increase your risk of osteoporosis. You should also try to reduce your alcohol intake and it’s important to avoid binge drinking.

Diagnosing osteoporosis

Many people are unaware they have osteoporosis until a fracture leads to them having a DEXA bone density scan at hospital or via their local fracture liaison service if they are over 50. You may also need to have a DEXA scan if you are under 50 but are at risk due to being a frequent smoker or having previously broken a bone. The results from your bone density scan are considered along with a fracture risk assessment to understand your likelihood of getting osteoporosis and experiencing further bone fractures.

If you are concerned that you might not be getting enough calcium or vitamin D and recognise some of the signs of deficiency, there are simple finger-prick blood tests that can be carried out to measure your levels. Results can be quickly obtained, and this can enable you to make immediate dietary changes or introduce a supplement to top up your levels and boost your bone health.