What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis — or loss of bone — is a highly prevalent disease, particularly in older people. This disease causes bones to become fragile and to break more easily.

The good news is that osteoporosis can be treated and, even better, prevented. We're seeing it every day at the University of Chicago Medicine. A simple bone mineral density test can identify who is at risk. Appropriate changes in diet and lifestyle and the use of newer medications can help improve bone mass and prevent fractures.

Who's at Risk?

It is estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis and an additional 18 million have low bone mass, which puts them at a risk for fracture, accompanying pain and debilitation. Women are at greatest risk for developing osteoporosis, although men may develop it as well.

Osteoporosis is suspected if there has already been a fracture with little or no trauma, or if any of the following risk factors are present:

  • Estrogen deficiency from early menopause (before age 45, either natural or surgical) or no period for a long time (six months to a year)
  • Personal history of fracture (broken bone) as an adult
  • Family history of osteoporosis or bone fracture
  • Small thin frame and/or low body weight
  • Low intake of calcium (avoidance of dairy products)
  • Immobilization or lack of exercise
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Other medical problems that contribute to bone loss, including thyroid and parathyroid conditions, digestive problems, eating disorders, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer and paralysis
  • Use of certain medications that weaken bones, such as steroids, overuse of thyroid hormone, blood thinners, anticonvulsants and diuretics

While osteoporosis can occur in anyone, it is more common in Caucasian and Asian women.