Osteoporosis: How to Detect a Disease without Symptoms

Roughly 10 million Americans live with osteoporosis, and 44 million more Americans are at increased risk. How can patients detect osteoporosis — a disease without symptoms?

Osteoporosis is a devastating disease, in part, because it’s a silent killer. “You cannot feel your bones getting weaker,” the National Osteoporosis Foundation explains on its website. “You may not even know you have osteoporosis until after you break a bone.”

Roughly 10 million patients are living with osteoporosis, and 44 million more Americans are living with low bone density, which increases the chances of developing osteoporosis. That makes it as common as it is difficult to detect. “The annual risk of fracture for a postmenopausal American woman exceeds her annual combined risk of cardiovascular disease and invasive breast cancer,” states the International Society for Clinical Densitometry, the leading membership organization for professionals working to assess, monitor and treat skeletal health. “Today in the USA, 1 in 5 people die within a year of breaking their hip.”

Bones: Living Tissue

Bones are living tissues, which are constantly being broken down and replaced. Around the age of 30, our body’s production of new bone tissue slows to the point that we no longer replace tissue as quickly as it’s lost. Osteoporosis is the consequence of this tissue creation deficit.” Essentially, there is less quantity of the bone and whatever is formed is poor quality,” explains Dr. Arashdeep Litt, internal medicine physician with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “The older you get, the higher the chances.”

Every year, osteoporosis causes more than 2 million broken bones. When a patient has weak bones, innocuous actions, such as bumping into furniture or a hard sneeze, can cause a fracture. In severe cases, such as hip fractures, patients are at significantly greater risk of serious and fatal complications.

“The mortality following spine fracture is similar, but even starker among elderly Medicare beneficiaries: only 50% are alive at 3 years, 30% at 5 years and 10% at 7 years,” says the International Society for Clinical Densitometry. “Fractures are preventable. National figures show the cost of treating osteoporotic fractures is close to $20 billion, while around $1 billion is being spent on prevention.”

Importance of New Monitoring Tools

Since we can’t examine our bones for obvious signs or symptoms, what’s the best way to check your bone health?

Bone mineral density is an effective tool that helps medical providers assess and track a patient’s progress. The National Institutes of Health’s Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center considers bone mineral density tests the best option. Yet, few patients are being tested in the early stages of the disease. “80 percent of older Americans who suffer bone breaks are not tested or treated for osteoporosis,” the National Osteoporosis Foundation notes.

One solution is to expand medical providers’ access to the latest monitoring tools and diagnostic equipment in order to catch this silent disease. New diagnostic innovations, such as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, deliver valuable information to prevent more costly complications.

Osteoporosis Affects Men, Too

In addition to expanded access to diagnostic equipment, it’s important to address a common misperception about osteoporosis.

Most people think of osteoporosis as a disease that affects older women. Age is a risk factor, and women over the age of 50 are at the highest risk. One in two women over the age of 50 will break a bone as a result of osteoporosis. But, many people don’t realize that the disease also affects men.

“I was concerned and surprised,” says Houston businessman Berdon Lawrence, who has lived with osteoporosis for 16 years. “I thought it was a ladies’ disease.”

This misperception—that osteoporosis is limited exclusively to women—makes it harder for men to receive the proper diagnosis and, eventually, the right treatment. It really is a big thing in men, but only 50 percent of men who have it end up on treatment because of the general impression that osteoporosis is a women’s disease.

5 Steps to Better Bone Health

The National Osteoporosis Foundation offers 5 helpful tips to prevent osteoporosis:

  • Get the calcium and vitamin D you need every day.
  • Do regular weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises.
  • Don’t smoke and don’t drink too much alcohol.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about your chance of getting osteoporosis and ask when you should have a bone density test.
  • Take an osteoporosis medication when it’s right for you