Have you started saving for your "golden years"? Well, don't forget to put enough away both in your bank account and your bones!

The debilitating bone disease osteoporosis is a major public health threat for 44 million Americans or 55 percent of people over age 50. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) estimates osteoporosis is responsible for more than 1.5 million fractures annually. The cost for these osteoporosis-related fractures was an estimated $18 billion in 2002.

There is no cure for this disease, but health experts agree that an adequate intake of calcium throughout life, especially in childhood and adolescence, is an important step to building strong bones and preventing osteoporosis. Here are some critical factors to remember:

  • Think of bones as a bank account. If you "deposit" enough calcium when you're young, chances are you'll have enough of a supply to draw on later in life. If you don't get enough calcium to support these critical functions, your body will "withdraw" what it needs from the calcium "banked" in your bones, and the penalty for frequent calcium withdrawals is weak and fragile bones.
  • Keep in mind bone loss progresses without any symptoms. Many people don't even know their bones have been weakened by osteoporosis until a minor fall or sudden strain causes a fracture, usually of the hip, wrist or spine. A fragile bone can snap from something as simple as bending down to pick up the newspaper or lift a bag of groceries.
  • Fractures can have serious and potentially fatal effects on the body. Many fractures require hospitalization and major surgery, resulting in months of rehabilitation. Six months after a hip fracture, only 15 percent of patients can walk across a room unaided. Even worse, fractures can result in death. An average of 24 percent of hip fracture patients aged 50 and older die in the year following the fracture.
  • Regular weight-bearing exercise, no smoking and a limited intake of alcohol are all important factors to bone health. Exercise, especially strength training, builds muscles which in turn help keep bones from getting weaker. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cigarette smoking increases your chances for osteoporosis because it decreases bone density as does alcohol, which inhibits absorption of calcium and vitamin D. So, when at all possible, get active, put the cigarettes and drinks down, and reap the benefits of stronger, healthier bones.
  • Above all, experts agree calcium intake is key. A panel from the National Institutes of Health on osteoporosis concluded "adequate calcium and vitamin D intake is crucial to develop peak bone mass and to preserve bone mass throughout life." To accomplish this, eat three servings each day of milk, cheese or yogurt. Look for milk, cheese and yogurt that supply at least 20 percent of the Daily Value (dv) of calcium, and you will be on your way to building a solid foundation for a healthier future.

Osteoporosis Clinical Center & Research Program

The Center, located at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, provides clinical evaluation and treatment of persons with osteoporosis and related bone disorders. Their website offers information about osteoporosis and related diseases and the procedures used to treat them. The Education page covers osteoporosis risk factors, prevention steps such as good nutrition and exercise, diagnosis, medication, and tips on preventing falls.

National Osteoporosis Foundation

This site offers comprehensive information about osteoporosis, including risk factors, symptoms, prevalence among men and women, tips on prevention, and approved medications for the prevention and/or treatment of the disease.