Dear Dr. Don,
I am a 61-year-old female. I take calcium every day and I try to swim 4 days per week. My doctor recently told me my vitamin D levels are low and I have low bone mass density. He said I should increase my vitamin D intake and change my exercise habits to avoid or delay the onset of osteoporosis. I thought by taking calcium and exercising I could avoid osteoporosis, but obviously this is not the case. Why is this happening and what can you recommend? Susan G.
What is osteoporosis? Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by low bone mass and bone tissue deteriorization, which makes your bones more fragile and increases the likelihood of fracture. It is a disease which many times goes unnoticed until a fracture occurs, typically in the hip, spine (vertebra), and forearm/wrist; although any bone can be affected. It is not something to take lightly, as it can negatively affect your quality of life over time. While women are more likely than men to develop the disease, men are also at risk for developing osteoporosis.
What causes osteoporosis? Drugs and certain disease states can cause osteoporosis, however, most people develop the disease due to the body’s natural decrease of bone mass over time. New bone is still formed, however, at a much slower rate than it is depleted. The reduction in bone density is most severe in post-menopausal women. This is just a natural part of aging and occurs in each and every one of us.
What can you do? Continue taking your calcium. However, to help your body absorb the calcium, you may need to increase your Vitamin D intake. Vitamin D assists in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, essential building blocks of bone. Experts recommend that patients over the age of 50 need 800 to 1000 IU of vitamin D daily, with the upper safe limit being 2000 IU daily. More than this can lead to toxicity. I suggest Vitamin D3, which you can get over the counter at your local pharmacy or vitamin store. You can also get it in fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon. You also may need to change your form of exercise to something more weight-bearing such as jogging, walking, or weight lifting. Weight-bearing exercise is important for optimal maximization and maintenance of bone. There is also a link between excessive alcohol intake and cigarette smoking to an increased risk in osteoporosis, so if you do either or both, this is another good reason to consider stopping.
I hope this helps. Consult your health practitioner before making any changes to your diet or starting new physical activities. For more information on osteoporosis, I would recommend going to the website: http://www.nof.org/osteoporosis/index.htm. If you don’t have access to the internet at home, your local librarian will be able to help you.
Dr. Don Haslam is a licensed pharmacist in Greensboro, NC.