It’s easy to ignore your bones when you’re young and feeling strong. But consider this: It just won’t do to wait until you’re 50 to start thinking about them. That’s because your risk for osteoporosis (literally, porous bones) hinges on how much bone mass you accrue in your teens, 20s and early 30s and how quickly you lose it later on. Both are factors you have some control over. Bones are living material, constantly building and breaking down in a process called remodeling; physiologists estimate we create 11 skeletons over the course of our lifetime! When we’re young, we form new bone faster than we lose old bone, achieving peak density around age 25 to 30, at which point we begin to lose slightly more than we gain. The loss rapidly speeds up post-menopause, when estrogen levels drop sharply (estrogen helps lay down new bone). The upshot: Half of American women older than 50 will fracture a hip, wrist or vertebra due to weakened bones, and 1 in 5 will develop full-blown osteoporosis.
Until very recently, bisphosphonate drugs (Fosamax, Actonel, Boniva) were considered the holy grail for preventing and treating osteoporosis. However, mounting evidence suggests that taking them for longer than five years might actually weaken your bones and cause spontaneous fractures and a rare but very serious jawbone disorder (osteonecrosis), as well as digestive problems. And dairy foods are no longer considered the panacea they once were: Study after study shows no decrease in fracture risk with higher consumption. Calcium supplements are also losing their status as a cure-all.
The good news: It’s never too late—or too early—to adopt simple lifestyle changes that will strengthen your skeleton and help delay bone breakdown. “How your bones land postmenopause is hugely dependent on how you take care of your body during your childbearing years,” says Amy J. Lanou, Ph.D., senior nutrition scientist for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and coauthor of Building Bone Vitality (McGraw Hill). “Just as with heart disease or type II diabetes, it’s the daily insults that accumulate over the years into osteoporosis.” If you’ve already been diagnosed with osteoporosis or have several risk factors for developing it, it’s time to seek medical attention. If not, start building wealth in your bone bank by making frequent deposits based on this advice from integrative health experts.