Signs of osteoporosis

Does the person you care for seem to have shrunk a bit? Pants are too long? Can’t reach items on their regular shelf? You can see the top of their head? it could be that their bones have become more porous with age. This is called “osteoporosis.”

With osteoporosis, bones are less dense and easily develop cracks and fractures that may or may not be painful. When cracks occur in the spinal column, the spine compresses, resulting in shortened height. In some people, the compression produces a hump or curve at the neck and shoulders. In other parts of the body, such as the hips, poor bone density is not obvious until a bone is broken.

Osteoporosis is serious, but underdiagnosed. Every year, about 2 million people over age 50 break a bone because of osteoporosis. For those who break a hip, the consequences are

  • 50% will need to use a walker or cane, at least temporarily
  • 25% will require some form of care assistance long term
  • 25% will not recover (the broken bone leads to a cascade of problems that ultimately results in death within a year).

Those most at risk are

  • women older than age 50. One out of two is likely to break a bone because of osteoporosis. (One in four men over 50 will break a bone. More for those over 70.)
  • people of slight build
  • people of Caucasian and/or Asian descent
  • those with a family history of osteoporosis

There are lifestyle risks as well, including smoking, drinking alcohol, and not exercising.

Getting tested
If your loved one complains about back pain, seems shorter, or has any of the known risk factors, ask the doctor about doing a bone density test. This specialized x-ray test (often called a “DEXA scan”) measures the thickness of the hip and sometimes other bones. Some cases might require an MRI. Medicare will usually pay for these tests if a doctor orders them.