One in two Caucasian women will fracture a bone due to osteoporosis. If the fracture is in the hip, there is a 20 percent chance the patient will die in the year following the fracture. Less than half of the women who suffer a hip fracture will regain their pre-existing level of function.

This information comes from Dr. Steve Stahle, a family physician specializing in sports medicine with Kirkwood Diagnostic & Orthopedic Associates, and it makes clear the importance of bone health as we age. Men also can develop osteoporosis, a condition in which bones lose density and become more fragile, although the disease is more common in women due to loss of estrogen during menopause. “Those who are at highest risk include Caucasian and Asian menopausal females who have small, thin body frames and a family history of osteoporosis,” Stahle says.

“Those who have a history of cigarette smoking, lack of exercise, lack of calcium and adequate vitamin D, and excessive alcohol consumption also can develop the condition. Age alone does not dictate who develops osteoporosis. Young females with extremely low body fat also are at high risk.”

Most women know it is important to ingest at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day prior to menopause and increase that amount to 1,500 milligrams after menopause. Because vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium, most calcium supplements include this important nutrient.

However, women can’t rely on supplements alone to protect their bones. “Exercise has been shown to improve bone mineral density,” says Dr. Michael Milne, an orthopedic surgeon with The Orthopedic Center of St. Louis. “Bone formation responds to force and stress across the bone. Six exercises proven to be most effective include the squat, military press, lateral pulldown, leg press, back extension and seated row, with three sessions per week consisting of two sets of six to eight reps.” Dr. Jason Young, an orthopedic surgeon with Orthopedic Associates, adds to Milne’s recommendation. “The ideal exercise program should include impact, strengthening and balance training,” he says. “Impact exercise works to increase new bone formation. Types of impact activities are brisk walking, jogging, stairs. Strengthening exercises help maintain the bones underlying the muscle being worked.”

Osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, have no obvious symptoms. Many people don’t realize their bones are weak until they fall and fracture a bone. Women who are 65 or older should talk with their physician about bone-density testing.

“Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA scan) is used to determine bone mass,” Young explains. Results are reported as a ‘T score,’ comparing bone density with that of healthy young women, and ‘Z score,’ comparing with other people your age, race and gender. “It is essential to discuss your risks with your physician and develop a screening and treatment plan accordingly.”