A house cannot stand without a firm foundation. Similarly, we cannot stand—at least not straight and tall—without a strong musculoskeletal system. Our bones are the infrastructure that supports our body, and it’s important to keep that infrastructure strong.

“Bone health begins at a young age. By the time a woman is 20 years old, she already has acquired about 85 to 90 percent of her bone mass. Her bone building is complete, but bone mass continues to increase until she is in her early 30s,” says Dr. Divya Chauhan, a family practitioner at Creve Coeur Family Medicine and on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Chauhan explains that bones become stronger and more dense as more calcium becomes part of the bone matrix. “If there is not enough calcium deposited in bones during childhood, they may become weak later in life, leading to bone disease such as osteoporosis. Fragile bones can easily fracture, or break, especially in the hip, spine and wrist.”

Calcium, vitamin D and protein are key nutrients that support bone health throughout life. Dietary calcium is found in dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and dark green, leafy vegetables (spinach, bok choy, broccoli). But does the typical diet provide enough calcium?

“Not all women need supplements, but everyone needs to get an adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D,” says Dr. Katherine Burns, an orthopedic surgeon with SSM Orthopedics at DePaul Health Center. Current guidelines call for women younger than 50 and men younger than 70 to consume 1,000 mg of daily calcium. Women older than 50 and men older than 70 should consume 1,200 mg of calcium. Vitamin D supplements may be necessary as well, she notes. Generally, 400 to 800 IU (international units) are recommended for people younger than 50, and 800 to 1,000 IU for those 50 and older.

“Exercise can also make a big difference in bone and musculoskeletal health,” Burns notes. “The key areas of focus are strength, balance and flexibility. Regular weight-bearing exercise has been shown to help maintain bone mass. Strength exercises also are beneficial to the musculoskeletal system. Lastly, it’s important to perform exercises such as yoga, pilates or tai chi that have a component of balance. Each year, one-third of individuals 65 and older will fall, and many of those falls will result in broken bones. Performing exercise that trains and maintains balance can decrease risk of falls.”

Because there are no obvious symptoms of osteoporosis, talking to your primary-care physician and taking a bone-density test are important to developing a complete bone health strategy. Medications can help prevent and treat osteoporosis.

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