You're in charge of your bone destiny
Karen Coghlan on the importance of building good bone health
Every year we get older, and unfortunately, the elixir of life is a mythical potion and eternal youth exists only for the characters from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
All is not lost, however. With some small lifestyle tweaks, we can delay the ageing process and grow old that bit more gracefully and ultimately lead a better quality of life.
Bone development and maintenance is a lifelong process. Our body continuously breaks down old bone and replaces it with newer bone. When we were younger, we laid down more new bone than we lost, enabling our bones to grow bigger and stronger. However, as we age, the balance is thrown slightly out of whack, and we remove more old than we lay down new bone.
Osteoporosis is a medical condition in which the bones become increasingly porous and brittle. As the disease develops, the bone is weakened and the risk of fracture increases. It can also result in pain, decreased height (from curvature of the back as the bones in the spine collapse), and other bone deformities.
Women over the age of 50 have the greatest risk of developing osteoporosis and one in every two Irish women over the age of 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime.
A hip fracture, as a result of osteoporosis, has a major impact on quality of life. Over half of people over the age of 60 with a fractured hip are unable to dress, bathe or walk unaided and only 30pc will ever regain their independence. In some cases, it can even be fatal, with 20pc of patients suffering hip fracture dying within four months and 30pc within a year.
Traditionally, osteoporosis was considered a female-specific disease. However, it is now becoming increasingly prevalent in elderly men, and the survival outcomes following a fracture for men are very grim.
It is estimated that one in five men will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime.
Lifestyle plays a huge role in maintaining bone health throughout life. Regular exercise and adequate nutrition, namely dietary calcium, vitamin D and protein are so important in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Particularly in early years and childhood, attention to lifestyle factors that enhance strong bones will increase bone survival during latter years.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and is the major mineral lost from our bones. Therefore, adequate intakes are vital to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Adults between 18 and 50 need 1,000mg of calcium a day. This increases to 1,200mg for women over 50 and men over 70.
Good sources include: low-fat dairy, dark leafy vegetables (such as bok choy, kale, and broccoli), salmon or sardines with bones, soy products (such as tofu set with calcium salts), calcium-fortified foods (such as plant milks, cereals and orange juice).
If you are struggling to get adequate calcium from your diet then consider taking a supplement. Just take care to read the label and consume the recommended dose.
Vitamin D plays a key role in bone health as it promotes the absorption of calcium. Vitamin D is also known as the 'sunshine vitamin'. During exposure to sunlight, the skin absorbs UVB radiation and is subsequently converted to vitamin D3.
However, unless you live in the tropics, then the odds are you're not getting optimal levels, as sun-induced vitamin D is influenced by season, time of day, and latitude.
Combining Ireland's high latitude and the lack of sensible sun exposure, due to sun protection, has led to more than 50pc of the population being at risk.
Vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods; some fatty fish, fish liver oils, beef liver, and eggs from hens that have been fed vitamin D. Some sources of fortified foods include some dairy products, orange juice, plant milks, and cereals.
The optimal daily dose of vitamin D is debatable, but a good starting point for adults is 600 to 800 IU (international units) a day through food and/or supplements.
If supplementing with vitamin D, then D3 is recommended over D2 since it is used more effectively in the body. Take daily with a fat source, as it is fat soluble.
A diet rich in protein is perfectly safe in healthy, active individuals and can offer a protective mechanism against osteoporosis.
Higher protein intakes may promote mineralisation of bone, improve calcium absorption, and maintain bone structure by improving muscle strength, all of which provide benefits in terms of bone health.
Dietary sources of protein include lean meats, fish, eggs, low-fat natural dairy, and beans, peas and legumes.
Use it or lose it
Adequate nutrition is vital for bone health, but alone it is not enough. Bone is a living, stress-responsive tissue and it will respond to the loads it is put under.
Weight training involves loading the bones of the body. Therefore, if weight-bearing activities are increased, then our bones will remodel themselves over time to become stronger and denser.
For women with osteoporosis, lifting weights has shown to dramatically improve bone density. Stronger, denser bones reduce risk of fracture from osteoporosis and provide a higher quality of life.
In summary, build strong healthy bones for life by lifting weights and consuming adequate amounts of calcium, vitamin D and protein in your diet.
Karen is a nutrition coach and personal trainer and runs monthly online group nutrition coaching programmes and hosts nutrition seminars around the country. See www.thenutcoach.com