How to improve your bone health

With the risk of osteoporosis increasing at menopause, it's never been more important.

You’ve may have read the stats: 1.36 million Australians suffer from osteoporosis; two out of three women are at risk of bad bone health once they’re over 50.

Adding to the complexity, this is a disease without symptoms (until a fall from standing height causes a fracture), meaning that it’s believed up to 80 per cent of Australians with osteoporosis will go undiagnosed and untreated.

We have a mindset problem too: osteoporosis is more common than breast and cervical cancer combined, and yet nationwide studies reveal many don’t actually believe they’re at risk.

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How does menopause affect osteoporosis?

It wasn’t until 1941 that endocrinologist Fuller Albright connected the dots between menopausal women and bone density. Commonly, when women turn 50, they experience a change in hormones which affects their bone density, increasing their risk of developing osteoporosis.

“That’s why I always suggest a bone density scan as a routine investigation at the time of menopause, if a patient is amendable to it,” says Dr Ginni Mansberg, noting that the cost (around $100) can be prohibitive. However, getting a clear picture of your bone health at this stage is important.

It’s never too late to get your bone health back on track. Here’s what we know about how to protect and improve your bone health.

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How to improve bone health?

Quit smoking and reduce your alcohol intake

“Men and women who don’t smoke have better bone health, and we know that quitting smoking can help improve your bone density,” says endocrinologist Frances Milat, Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Clinical Sciences at Monash University. 

“Reducing your alcohol intake to recommended levels is good for your general health as well as your bones.”

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Look after your diet

Bones are full of calcium – it’s the mineral that gives them hardness and strength. The catch is that you need to get it from your diet (up to three daily serves of foods including milk, cheese and yoghurt; dark green leafy vegetables; canned salmon).

“We used to think taking calcium supplements would make your bones stronger,” says Dr Mansberg. “We now know that they do nothing to prevent bone fractures and, in many studies, have been found to increase your risk of heart disease by hardening arteries.”

The only caveat with dietary calcium: you need adequate vitamin D levels for your body to absorb it. In everyday terms, when UV levels are 3 or above, the Cancer Council recommends most people need a few minutes of sun exposure to get their daily dose.

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Exercise for bones

For healthy bones, you’ve got to “use it or lose it,” says Belinda Beck, a professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences at Griffith University and founder of The Bone Clinic in Queensland.

To improve bone density with exercise, it has to be a specific type of exercise that overloads the bone. Historically, research trials investigating the link between exercise and bone density shied away from participants doing anything that created too much strain.

The clinical trials that followed were able to show that a specific set of high intensity resistance and impact training was effective at improving bones, as well as strength and function, and that it was safe.

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