Men and women in their 20s and 30s typically don’t regard bone density as a serious health concern — but that couldn’t be farther from the truth for those in this particular age group.
I wish someone had said to me in my late teens and early twenties, “this is the most critical time in your life to ensure your calcium and vitamin D levels are high.” It wasn’t until a professor of mine passively lectured about calcium deposition halting between the ages of 25-30 that I began to panic, thinking I’d wasted the the most important years during which I should have been actively building calcium stores in my bones for 30, 40 and 50 years later.
As one fresh into her early thirties, I can attest to the fact that many in my age group do not think about bone health. Rather, we take a “we’ll cross that bridge when it comes” approach to taking extra calcium and vitamin D for bone health, assuming that any complications we may experience are years and years away. And while it’s true that the complications may be years away, the ideal period for prevention starts in your early twenties and ends in your early thirties. Once past a that period, calcium levels must be kept high in order to prevent your body from leaching it from your bones to fulfill calcium’s other duties in your body such as maintaining a regular heart beat and keeping you hormones in check.
A team of bone health experts at Northwestern Medicine recognize the lack of emphasis being placed on calcium and vitamin D intake among men and women in their 20′s and 30′s and have launched an effort to raise awareness on the subject. They released the following statements in hopes to spread the word that men and women of this age group place a greater emphasis on calcium and vitamin D levels:
While women are disproportionately affected by osteoporosis, growing evidence suggests that all adults need to take proactive measures for prevention. Northwestern Medicine experts say it’s important for men to know their risk too and point to a significant amount of evidence that suggests actions to minimize risk of the disease must occur when patients are in their teens and early adult years in order to boost bone health and prevent bone fragility in later years.
“When most people think of bones, they do not think of them as living and growing organisms; however, this is exactly what they are. Bones are made up of active cells that are constantly replaced and growing,” said Andrew Bunta, M.D., vice chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery Northwestern Memorial Hospital and at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The reverse is also true, as bones can decrease in density over time due to lack of care.”
Osteoporosis occurs when bone mass is deficient. Risk factors include being female, family history, advanced age, low body weight, sedentary lifestyle choices and insufficient calcium and vitamin D levels. While post-menopausal Caucasian women make up the largest percentage of osteoporosis cases, the disease can affect women of any ethnicity as well as men. More than 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and as many as 40 million more have low bone mass and are at high risk of developing the disease.
Lifestyle choices including smoking, excessive alcohol use, or overtraining in early adulthood can cause a condition called osteopenia, which is lowered bone mineral density. This deficiency can occur in the peak years of bone development and if not addressed, the condition may worsen and lead to osteoporosis in later years. People with eating disorders are also at heightened risk for developing osteopenia and osteoporosis.
“People mistakenly assume they don’t have to worry about osteoporosis until their later years, when in fact it is their behavior in their adolescent and early adulthood that helps determine whether or not they will suffer from bone loss,” said Bunta, who is also the chair of the scientific steering committee for the American Orthopaedic Association’s Own the Bone osteoporosis fracture prevention program for patients with previous fractures.
Osteoporosis and osteopenia prevention should start early in life as children and young adults have increased ability to gain bone mass. The majority of bone mass is formed by age 18 in females and by age 20 in males, with peak bone mass achieved in both men and women by age 30. According to Bunta, inadequate bone formation during these critical years will prevent a person from obtaining normal peak bone mass making it crucial to focus on bone health in early adulthood.
“Individuals continue to grow bone throughout their lives, but this ability is most heightened during the early years of life through a person’s 20s,” explained Bunta. “Young adulthood is prime time to take steps to prevent the development of bone related disorders and fight against fractures in later in life.”
A healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a nutritious diet is a key component to promoting bone health. Consuming a sufficient amount of calcium and vitamin D is among the best ways to prevent osteoporosis. Calcium, a mineral which is stored primarily in the bones and teeth, aids in the expansion of blood vessels and muscles. “Our bodies continually remove and replace calcium as we grow, and vitamin D aids in its absorption and incorporation into our bones so it is important to get enough of both,” explains Bunta. “This is not always possible to accomplish through diet alone in later years, so it may be necessary to take calcium and vitamin D supplements as we age.”
In addition to calcium and vitamin D supplements there are prescription drugs known as Bisphosphonates that can help increase bone density and slow the breakdown of the bone; thus, helping to prevent fractures caused by decreased bone mass.
“Fractures associated with poor bone health affect nearly 2 million people annually,” said Bunta. “A person who sustains a fracture due to impaired bone mineral density more than doubles his or her chances of acquiring another fracture in the future which can be debilitating or even life-threatening.”
Prevention is the best step we can take to promote better bone health. Bunta suggests talking with your doctor about individual strategies for supporting overall bone health.