You've probably seen the ads on TV. Female celebrities of a certain age tout the amazing benefits of drugs for osteoporosis. These ubiquitous ads give the impression that the majority of women will need some kind of medication to stave off or control osteoporosis, a bone disorder characterized by thinning bones that puts you at risk for fracture.
In fact, many doctors are rethinking the way they prescribe these drugs, which belong to a class of medications called bisphosphonates. Most of the research on these drugs has focused on older women who already have osteoporosis. The use of these drugs in younger women (even those who already have the bone disorder) is quite controversial.
If your doctor wants to put you on drugs, ask questions:
- What is the reason for the prescription?
- If you don't have the disease, what puts you at risk?
- What are the side effects of the drug?
- How long will you be on the drug?
- Is there an alternative to medication?
It's true that you are more at risk for this disease after menopause but some women are far more at risk than others. Some of the risk factors are genetic and others are the result of activities during childhood and adolescence, when your bones were reaching their peak mass.
But there is still a lot you can do to strengthen your bones as you get older without medication. That's why the last question is so important. A number of studies have shown that you may be able to improve your bone strength and decrease your fracture risk through diet, lifestyle changes and weight-bearing exercise.
Here are some things you can do, but it's important to remember to discuss all of these possibilities with your doctor before you embark on a bone-building program.
1. Get more calcium and vitamin D. Aim for 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 600 to 800 international units (IUs) of vitamin D every day. You can get much of that in food - and, indeed, that's always the best way to improve your intake of vitamins and minerals. Consider supplements if you're not getting enough in your diet.
2. Stop smoking. Smokers are more at risk than non-smokers. That's just one of many, many reasons to quit.
3. Exercise. Two kinds of exercise help. Weight-bearing exercise maintains bone strength and can even improve it. Examples: brisk walking, jogging or hiking; heavy gardening; tennis and other racquet sports; weight training with free weights or machines. If you need more guidance, ask your doctor to recommend a trainer or physical therapist who works with women at risk for thinning bones.
Exercises that emphasize balance - such as yoga or tai chi - can also decrease your risk of falling and fracturing your bones.