Help protect your bones after 65 — a 3-step plan

By Lauren Bedosky

To help prevent falls and safeguard your bone mass, older adults need to think beyond milk

Our bones weaken as we get older. But don’t be alarmed: “This age-related bone loss is normal,” says Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the school of public health at the University of Michigan.

What can be alarming, however, is how quickly your bones can weaken if you’re not taking care of them, she adds. And as bone strength goes down, your risk of osteoporosis (low bone mass) goes up. Coupled with the age-related increased risk of falls, this creates a greater possibility of serious injuries.

To help give your bones better protection, follow this 3-step plan.

Step #1: Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Your bones are constantly shedding old bone cells and laying down new ones. “We want to make sure that the new bone being laid down is strong and mineralized,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez. The best way to do that is to eat foods that are rich in key vitamins and minerals — namely, calcium and vitamin D.

Calcium and vitamin D are a power couple: Calcium is critical for building bone, but you need to get enough vitamin D in order to absorb the mineral and make use of it.

Milk, yogurt and cheese are obvious food choices, but if dairy causes you digestive issues, there are plenty of other foods that will provide the nutrients you need. Greens like kale, broccoli and turnip greens offer calcium, as well as other bone-building nutrients like vitamins K and C. Meanwhile, fish, seeds and nuts provide vitamin D and magnesium, another mineral that keeps bones healthy.

However, it can be tricky to get enough vitamin D through diet alone, “unless you’re being very deliberate about it,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez. Keep an eye on how much vitamin D you’re getting through foods. Aim for at least 600 International Units (IUs) a day if you’re under 70 and 800 IUs a day if you’re 70 or older. If you struggle to get enough, talk to your doctor about adding a vitamin D supplement to your diet, Karvonen-Gutierrez says.

Step #2: Start strength training

To help keep your bones strong and reduce your risk of falls, it’s important to stay active. Aerobic activities like walking are great for building overall mobility and fitness. But they won’t challenge your bones enough to encourage growth, says Antonia Chen, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

That’s where strength training comes in. Strength training (aka resistance training) is a weight-bearing exercise that spurs new bone growth, says Karvonen-Gutierrez. “When we put force on the bone, it stimulates our bone to mineralize and become stronger,” she explains.

Keep up your regular routine, adds Dr. Chen, but be sure to include at least two days of strength training per week. You can lift weights or stick to bodyweight exercises. Learn more about the health benefits of strength training and find simple exercsises to try.

If you have joint issues, modify the exercises as needed so you don’t experience discomfort or pain. “Some people say ‘push through the pain,’ but that’s a bad idea,” says Dr. Chen. If you need help finding a safe and effective exercise routine for your bones, work with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer who specializes in training older adults.

Step #3: Team up with your doctor

Your doctor or health care provider is an important ally for keeping your bones healthy. They can help you figure out if you have any risk factors for osteoporosis or fractures. Your family health history, sex (women have a higher risk of bone loss than men), age, activity level, diet and body weight (especially low body weight) can all affect your bone health, according to Karvonen-Gutierrez. Be ready to review all of these points with them.

Some health conditions and medications can also increase your risk for osteoporosis or fractures. For example, anti-inflammatory medications like prednisone, which is used to treat conditions like arthritis, severe allergies and immune disorders, can cause bones to break down over time. If you’re taking these or other medications that weaken bones, your doctor can help you figure out how to counteract that loss.

Meanwhile, other medications can cause side effects like dizziness and nausea, which may increase your risk of a fall. In that event, talk to your doctor about how to reduce those effects. “We really don’t want medications to be a reason that someone falls,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez.

At your next doctor visit, the National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests asking your doctor the following:

  • Do I have any risk factors for osteoporosis or fractures?
  • How much calcium and vitamin D should I be getting every day?
  • Could any of my medications cause bone loss?
  • Do I have a medical condition that could cause bone loss?
  • Do I need a bone mineral density (BMD) test? (Or, if you’ve had one, what do my BMD results mean?)
  • How can I prevent falls?

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