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Categories > Osteoporosis > Prevention

Tone your bones
Are you at risk?
Boning up on the basics
Heading off the disease

About calcium supplements
About calcium supplements

Few women get the recommended daily 1,000–1,200 mg of calcium from their diets. Taking a calcium supplement can help make up the deficit. (Typical multivitamins and prenatal supplements contain less than a third of what you need). Consider these factors when taking supplements:

  • Look for a supplement made from calcium carbonate or calcium citrate.
  • Avoid supplements made from bone meal, dolomite or unrefined oyster shell because these may contain lead or other contaminants.
  • Don’t take more than 500 mg at a time. Your body uses calcium better when you take the supplement in smaller doses throughout the day.
  • Ask your doctor how to stagger your doses if you also take iron supplements or the antibiotic tetracycline because calcium can impede their absorption.

The bone-thinning disease osteoporosis is a condition young women may have a hard time getting worked up about. After all, it doesn’t pose any symptoms or pain yet, and debilitating consequences like hip or spinal fractures seem decades away.

The truth is, osteoporosis can strike at any age, and the bone loss that sets the stage for the disease begins in your mid-30s. One of every two women over age 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture in her life, but such a fate is not part of normal aging and can be prevented by taking steps now.

Are you at risk?

Simply being female puts you at risk of developing osteoporosis—80 percent of sufferers are women. Did you shun milk in favor of diet soda as a teen? Have you ever broken a bone as an adult? You could already be one of the 34 million people with lower than normal bone density, a condition called osteopenia, which precedes the more severe bone loss defined as osteoporosis. Other bone-loss risk factors include:

  • being of Caucasian or Asian descent
  • a family history of osteoporosis (if your mother broke a hip, your chances of developing the disease double)
  • a petite body frame
  • low calcium and vitamin D intake throughout life
  • early menopause
  • surgery to remove your ovaries
  • the use of corticosteroids, some antiseizure and cancer drugs, and hormones used to treat endometriosis
  • an overactive thyroid
  • excessive hormone use for an underactive thyroid
  • an inactive lifestyle
  • a history of smoking or excessive alcohol use
  • a history of chemotherapy or breast cancer

Boning up on the basics

Your bones are living, growing tissue made of the mineral calcium phosphate (which makes them hard) and collagen (but flexible). Throughout life, old bone is removed and new bone added. During the growing years of childhood and adolescence, new bone is created faster than old bone is removed, and your skeleton becomes larger, heavier and denser. This continues until around ages 25 to 30, when you reach peak bone mass—your maximum density and strength. Thereafter, more bone is lost than is replaced.

Estrogen plays a vital role in building and maintaining bone. When estrogen levels plummet after menopause, bone loss speeds up. Girls who begin menstruating early tend to have greater bone density as a result of increased exposure to estrogen. If an eating disorder or rigorous exercise causes your periods to cease (known as amenorrhea), a signal of low estrogen, you face increased risk as well.

Heading off the disease

The key to preventing osteoporosis includes achieving optimal bone mass during your youth and maintaining what you’ve built through adulthood. Here’s how you can keep your bones strong and healthy:

  • Eat a bone-healthy diet. Getting adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D (necessary for calcium absorption) is essential throughout life, particularly during your bone-building years. Women ages 19 to 50 need at least 1,000–1,200 mg of calcium and 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D a day. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products; dark green, leafy vegetables; sardines and salmon with bones; tofu; almonds; and foods fortified with calcium such as orange juice and cereals. Still, getting adequate calcium can be difficult. Studies show that only 6 percent of women of childbearing age consume enough. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether you should take supplements.
    Exposure to sunlight provides most people with enough vitamin D. Ten to 15 minutes of exposure to hands, arms and face, two to three times a week, is usually sufficient. Using sunscreen, however, can reduce the amount of vitamin D you produce, so be sure to eat foods rich in vitamin D, including eggs, fatty fish and fortified milk and cereal.
  • Give your bones a workout. Like muscle, bone responds to exercise by becoming stronger and denser. Activities you perform on your feet with your hips and spine supporting your weight help strengthen bone and slow mineral loss. Try walking, jogging, stair climbing, dancing, weight training or racquet sports at least three to four times a week.
  • Assess your risk. Discuss your personal risk factors with your doctor to determine when you might benefit from a screening for low bone density. Tests that measure your bone density, such as dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), can assess your bone health and predict your risk for fractures, although they aren’t necessary for most premenopausal women. But some of your risk factors may indicate you should have a test before menopause. If you already have low bone density, your doctor can suggest lifestyle changes and prescribe medication to slow mineral loss and prevent fractures.