Osteoporosis: What You Should Know

Osteoporosis is a disease that affects many Americans. It can lead to an increased risk of bone fractures of the hips, spine, and wrists. Find out if you are at risk for osteoporosis and what you can do to prevent it.

Page updated on May 4, 2017 at 12:06 PM

What is Osteoporosis?

The word “osteoporosis” means “porous bone.” It is a disease in which bone density decreases and the bone becomes weaker. This can cause increased risk of fractures, particularly of the hip bones, spine, and wrists. More than 40 million Americans either have osteoporosis or are at risk for it. Osteoporosis is both preventable and treatable. 


Osteoporosis occurs when the body breaks down its bone faster than it can form more bone, which leads to low bone mass. Low bone mass is a combination of low bone density and strength. 

Risk Factors

There are several factors that can increase a person’s risk of contracting osteoporosis. Some risk factors cannot be change, while others can. 

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

  • Gender: Women are more likely to have less bone mass than men. Women also lose more bone mass during and after menopause 
  • Age: Older adults are at greater risk of osteoporosis because bones become weaker as they age
  • Body size: Small, thin-boned people have an increased risk
  • Ethnicity: Caucasian and Asian people have a higher risk than African-American and Hispanic people, but all persons are at risk
  • Family history: People with parents who have had fractures are more likely to be at risk for osteoporosis 

Risk Factors You Can Change

  • Sex hormones: Low levels of estrogen (menopause) and testosterone can cause osteoporosis
  • Calcium and vitamin D intake: A diet low in calcium and vitamin D can increase chances of bone loss
  • Anorexia nervosa: This eating disorder can increase the risk of osteoporosis because nutrition intake is low
  • Medication use: Some medications, such as steroids and certain anti-seizure medicines, can lead to lower bone mass and increased risk of fractures
  • Lifestyle: Bones are often weakened by physical inactivity and extended bed rest
  • Cigarettes: In addition to the effects on the heart and lung, smoking is also bad for bone health
  • Alcohol: Too much alcohol increases risk of fractures and bone loss


The key to preventing osteoporosis is to reach ideal peak bone mass when you are younger and to continue to build new bone while you age. The best way to do that is to control the risk factors you can change.

  • Calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients for bone health. Reaching and keeping a good bone mass requires having the correct intake of these nutrients in your diet.
    • Calcium can be found in low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese; dark, green, leafy vegetables; and foods fortified with calcium, such as certain brands of orange juice, cereal, and bread.
    • Consider taking a supplement if you are not receiving the proper amount of calcium in your diet. The amount of calcium necessary varies during the stages of life and is greater during childhood and adolescence, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and in old age. Click here to view recommended calcium intake for various age groups.
    • Vitamin D is important because it helps the body absorb calcium. Eating foods such as egg yolks, saltwater fish, and liver will increase vitamin D intake. While most people obtain enough vitamin D naturally, older adults and those who are confined indoors may not. Talk to your doctor to see if you should take a vitamin D supplement.
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity will increase bone health
  • Alcohol Consumption: Excess alcohol use can lead to osteoporosis
  • Smoking: Smoking is bad for bones. Smokers may absorb less calcium from their diets
  • Certain medications can increase bone loss, such as steroids (when used long term) and certain anti-seizure medications. Excessive use of aluminum-containing antacids, certain cancer treatments, and excess thyroid hormone may also increase the risk of osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor about this; do not stop or change any medications without talking to your doctor.


Often there are no signs of osteoporosis in its early stages and people don’t realize they have it until after a bone injury. However, spinal pain, stooped posture, and a loss in height can be signs of collapsed backbones. These are often caused by osteoporosis, even without injury. If you do notice symptoms, talk to your doctor about the possibility of osteoporosis.
Depending on your age, gender and other risk factors, your doctor may recommend measuring your bone mass density (BMD). BMD is measured with special equipment and the test is painless.


If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, your doctor may put you on a program to help decrease your risk of fracture and increase your bone health. This program will likely have nutritional and physical parts, such as increased calcium and vitamin D intake and increased exercise and physical activity. There will be advice on preventing falls which can cause, or be the result of, bone fractures in persons with osteoporosis. In addition, your doctor may prescribe a medication that helps your body to increase bone health.

Additional Resources

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Calcium and Bone Health
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Osteoporosis Overview
NIH Osteoporosis Fall Prevention