Beating Osteoporosis

It's little known, but 50 per cent of women over the age of 65 get osteoporosis. And now, crash dieting - leading to a lack of bone minerals - has made it more common in an increasing number of younger women and men, too. Recent reports indicate that the NHS are failing to tackle this 'killer bone disease satisfactorily, despite its high incidence rate, with poor screening and strategies to beat it.

What is osteoporosis?

In essence, the disease is a weakening of the skeleton caused by a natural decline in bone formation. As we get older, we gradually lose bone density because our bone cells wear out faster than they can be replaced. Women are more commonly affected because a decrease in the hormone oestrogen at the menopause causes more rapid bone loss.

Sometimes the first sign of osteoporosis is a broken hip, spine or wrist. In other cases, sufferers may develop breathing problems or incontinence as the spine starts to compress and crush internal organs. According to Caroline Chisholm of the National Osteoporosis Society, we start to gradually lose bone from our mid-30s. "It's essential to put as much bone in the bank as possible from childhood onwards," she says.

Protecting yourself

But while the best prevention starts early, it's never too late to protect yourself. Eating two servings daily of dairy products (yoghurt, milk or cheese) supplies the calcium needed for strong bones, and avoiding too much animal protein, salt and phosphoric acid (in fizzy drinks) helps prevent unnecessary losses of the mineral in urine. Try to drink coffee and tea separately from meals too, as caffeine taken at the same time as food reduces calcium uptake from the gut. Cigarettes and excess alcohol also rob bones of calcium, so try to cut back on these these. In addition to a healthy diet, most women can increase their odds of avoiding osteoporosis by taking certain targeted supplements. Here are some of the most useful...

Calcium and Vitamin D

Even elderly women can improve their bones by taking two of the most important bone nutrients - calcium and vitamin D. In one study, women in their 80s who were given 1200mg calcium and 800mcg vitamin D daily for 18 months experienced a 43 per cent reduction in risk of a hip fracture. (The two nutrients work well together because vitamin D enhances the uptake of calcium from the gut.)

Magnesium and other bone minerals

Although calcium is important, it's not the only mineral that builds bones -- you need adequate amounts of other minerals too. In one study carried out in Sydney , Australia , high intakes of iron, zinc and magnesium intake were all positively correlated, with increased bone density in the forearms of pre-menopausal women. Similarly, boron is thought to improve bone strength. According to Dr Frank Nielson of the US Department of Agriculture, menopausal women who took 3mg boron daily increased their levels of a particular form of oestrogen that helps to prevent the breakdown of bone.

Fish oils and evening primrose oil

Recent studies suggests that gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) from evening primrose or starflower oil and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish oils enhance calcium absorption, and increase calcium deposition in bone. Sixty-five elderly women who took GLA + EPA capsules daily along with 600mg calcium for three years showed nearly a five per cent increase in the density of bone in their thighs. In women who took the calcium with a coconut oil placebo, no such improvements were seen.


Isoflavones are plant hormones found naturally in foods such as soya, alfalfa, flax seeds and red clover. Japanese women, who eat around 50-100mg isoflavones a day have around half the hip fracture rate of women in the West who consume a measly 1mg. One reason may be that isoflavones act like a mild dose of oestrogen, helping to prevent bone breakdown. Most scientists agree that it's best to eat naturally isoflavone-rich foods such as soya, as they contain other beneficial components too. But as a back up, an isoflavone supplement such as oestroven or red clover may be useful for protection of bones in women over 40.

Stay active

Exercise is very important in preventing against osteoporosis, as the stress on your skeleton forces it to make more bone. Skipping or jumping up and down for a few minutes each day is particularly effective at increasing bone mass, according to research at Nottingham University . But more gentle weight-bearing exercises, such as walking or jogging, also work well. Over-training, which often goes hand in hand with an eating disorder, can harm, not help bones.

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