“You can go your whole life without realizing your bones are changing,” said Leah Prestbo, MD, family medicine physician at Avera Medical Group. “In fact, people sometimes aren’t diagnosed with bone loss until after an accident, such as slipping on the ice and breaking a wrist.”
For both men and women, bone density peaks in their 30s. And while both experience bone loss, women experience it more dramatically, especially after menopause.
“Men typically reach a higher peak bone density than women,” said Prestbo. “That’s why bone loss is especially dangerous for women — they have lower bone density to begin with.”
Good lifelong habits can help deter bone loss in your 40s and 50s. Get plenty of calcium and vitamin D, whether from dairy products or a dietary supplement. Add weight-bearing exercises to your fitness routine and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol use.
Another good preventive measure is getting a DEXA scan — a special, low-radiation X-ray.
During the screening, you lie on an exam table while the machine photographs your spine, hip and forearm. The machine then analyzes the images, comparing your bones’ thicknesses to that of young, healthy individuals as well as people of your own age group.
Where you land in comparison to those in this young, normal database determines your T-score. A T-score of -1 or up means your bones are within a healthy range. Anything below a -1 indicates bone loss.
In general, healthy women and men should start having DEXA scans at ages 65 and 70, respectively. “However, it may be appropriate to screen individuals at a younger age if they have additional risk factors,” said Prestbo.
Some risk factors linked to bone loss include:
- Drinking too much
- Steroid use
- Some medications, such as those taken for reflux disease, asthma and seizures
- Low BMI
- Some chronic medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis
If your physician has recommended follow-up DEXA scans, schedule them in the same facility with the same machine. “When DEXA machines are installed, they are calibrated. Another machine may be calibrated differently and therefore produce different results which cannot be accurately compared to your first screening.”
If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, the main goal is to halt any further bone loss. “Cutting out your risk factors is a good way to start. You may be prescribed medications that help stop bone loss and rebuild bones,” said Prestbo.
Before scheduling your DEXA scan, call your insurance provider or Medicare about coverage. It’s often a covered screening for women age 65 or older, and sometimes even for younger women. However, coverage varies greatly for men, which is why checking with your insurance is imperative.