Osteopenia vs Osteoporosis: What’s the Difference?

osteopenia vs osteoporosisStrong bones are an important component of your overall health and well being. If you have weak bones, you are at a greater risk of injury from falls, which could lead to life-threatening complications. It becomes even more important to have strong, dense bones as you get older because you naturally lose some bone density over time. Two related bone density diseases are osteopenia and osteoporosis. Most people have heard about osteoporosis, but osteopenia gets less press, even though it has similar risk factors.

Luckily, prevention and maintenance of both osteopenia and osteoporosis can be as easy as eating a healthy and nutritious diet, a process you can get started by signing up for this course. Additionally, exercise can be an important part of keeping your bones healthy.

What is Bone Density?

Both osteopenia and osteoporosis are associated with low bone density, which is the measurement of the density and strength of bones. As people age, bones naturally become thinner. Around middle age, the existing bone cells become reabsorbed by the body faster than any new bone cell growth. The bones begin to lose minerals, mass and structure. This weakens the bones, which increases a person’s risk of injury and fracture. Peak bone density typically occurs around age 30. After that, people naturally begin to lose bone mass. The thicker and stronger your bones are at age 30, the longer it takes to lose enough bone density to be diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis.

What is Osteopenia?

Osteopenia is a classification for bone density that is a precursor to osteoporosis. Someone with osteopenia has a lower bone density than the normal, ideal density but not low enough for an osteoporosis diagnosis. To be diagnosed with osteopenia, you will have a bone mineral density T-score between -1.0 and -2.5. A person with osteopenia has a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Although it is often seen as a precursor to osteoporosis, having osteopenia does not guarantee you will develop osteoporosis.

Some people develop osteopenia due to other factors than just natural bone loss. Some people naturally have a lower bone density level than the optimum, normal levels. Osteopenia might also develop due to other diseases, such as eating disorders, digestive or metabolism problems, or malabsorption problems, as well as the treatment for diseases, including certain medications, chemotherapy, or radiation. It is very important that someone with osteopenia implements diet and lifestyle changes to prevent the development of osteoporosis.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis occurs when a person has a very low bone density that significantly increases his or her risk of fracture.  A person will be diagnosed with osteoporosis if he or she has a bone mineral density of -2.5 or higher. When you have osteoporosis, the bones can be so weak and brittle that a fall, bending over, or even coughing can cause the bones to fracture. The most at-risk bones for fracture are the hip, wrist and spine. Breaking a bone, especially in the elderly, can lead to dangerous consequences. For example, twenty percent of seniors who break a hip die within one year due to complications related to the broken bone or the reparation surgery. Those who survive often need long-term nursing home care.

What are the Symptoms? 

Osteopenia has no symptoms, and its typically diagnosed through a bone density test done to screen for osteoporosis among those at risk. The early stages of bone loss do not have any symptoms. However, once enough bone density loss has occurred, a person might start having back pain, lose height, have a stooped posture, or fracture a bone much easier than it should.

Who is at Risk of Developing Osteopenia or Osteoporosis?

Women are more at risk than men for developing osteopenia or osteoporosis. Women typically have a lower peak bone density than men, and the hormonal changes that occur during menopause speeds up the loss of bone mass. People with nutritional deficiency, either due to an eating disorder or a digestive or metabolism disorder are also at a greater risk of developing osteopenia or osteoporosis. Additionally, a family history, as well as being white or Asian, also increases a person’s risk of developing osteoporosis. Being very thin, not exercising, smoking, drinking sodas regularly, or consuming large amounts of alcohol are also risk factors for osteoporosis.

How to Prevent Bone Loss

The best way to prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis is to eat a healthy diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, especially when young. Other essential nutrients for bone health include phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin K, chromium, silica, zinc, manganese, copper, boron, potassium, strontium, vitamin A, vitamin B6, B9, and B12, and vitamin C. Protein is also important for maintaining strong bones.

Weight bearing exercises such as running, weight lifting, walking, and dancing also strengthen bones and prevents osteoporosis. Limiting the alcohol and tobacco use, as well as soda consumption, can also decrease your risk. If you have a gastrointestinal disorder or an eating disorder, you should be more careful to ensure you get enough nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D. Thyroid problems can also lead to bone density problems, so it is essential to properly manage a thyroid condition. Be sure to check out this Udemy course for a primer in thyroid health.

How to Treat Osteopenia and Osteoporosis

If you have a mild form of osteopenia, then your doctor will probably just recommend dietary and lifestyle changes to prevent any further bone density loss, including implementing a weight-bearing exercise program. If you have more significant bone density loss or are diagnosed with osteoporosis, you might be prescribed medicine, the most widely prescribed of which are bisphosphonates, such as Fosmax, Binosoto, Actonel, and Boniva. These medications do have some minor side effects, so they should be taken as directed and you should remain in contact with your doctor about any adverse effects.

For post-menopausal women, hormone therapy may be ordered, including taking estrogen. Older men may develop osteoporosis due to a decline in testosterone, so they might undergo hormone-replacement therapy. If you have osteoporosis, your doctor will also talk to you about how to prevent falls, which is one of the most dangerous things for people with osteoporosis. You should wear shoes without a heal that have nonslip soles and check your home and office for any rugs, cords, or slippery surfaces that might cause a fall. Installing grab bars in the bathroom can also help to prevent falls.

Make Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Bone Loss Today 

You can make lifestyle changes to prevent bone loss, even if you are at a high risk of developing osteoporosis or osteopenia. It is never too late to implement changes to strengthen your bones. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is one of the most important changes you can make for your bone health.

A plant-based diet rich in vitamins and minerals not only can keep your bones healthy, it can also prevent and treat other common diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Cutting out or significantly limiting soda intake, alcohol consumption and tobacco will likewise benefit your bone–and overall–health. In addition to diet, exercise is essential to maintaining your bone health. If you do not currently exercise, it is never too late to start. You can find an exercise program that will ease you into a regular regime. You need to do at least some weight bearing exercises, such as walking, running, or weight lifting.

You do not have to be alone when making these lifestyle changes. You can find a local health club that will support you and answer your questions. You can also take a course on nutrition and exercise to learn what you need to know to be healthy and have strong, healthy bones.