Osteoporosis: Not Just a Woman's Problem

Women's bones get all the attention but it turns they aren't the only ones whose bones break. Recent research shows that osteoporosis, long considered a women's disease, is taking a significant toll on men, too.

Osteoporosis is defined as a decline in the density of bones that makes them weaker and more likely to break. "Men today live longer so the condition is becoming more common for them," said Ethel Siris, MD, president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) when interviewed on Sound Medicine, a radio station sponsored by the Indiana University School of Medicine.

According to NOF:

  • Two million men currently have the disease
  • One in four over the age of 50 will fracture a bone due to osteoporosis-related issues

These fractures are a major cause of disability in both men and women, but are more likely to be fatal in men. Hips are particularly problematic given that 20 percent of people with a hip fracture die within a year of their injury. If that's not reason enough for men to be cautious consider a Mayo Clinic statistic that found men are twice as likely as women to die in the hospital after a hip fracture.

Despite the large number of men affected, osteoporosis in men remains under diagnosed and underreported. In part it's because men don't experience the rapid bone thinning women do. (The sharp decline of estrogen following menopause is the culprit here.) In both sexes, bones gradually thin and begin to lose strength after the age of 30. By the age of 51, the real trouble sets in as men and women begin to feel the affects of osteoporosis.

Risk Factors

Bone density is also affected by:

  • Heredity
  • Diet
  • Sex hormones
  • Lifestyle choices such as smoking or excessive alcohol use
  • Inadequate physical activity
  • Having a thin body build
  • Being of Asian or Caucasian ethnicity

 Certain medication can also play a role.

  • Prolonged use of steroids, such as prednisone or cortisone, commonly used to treat asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, or arthritis
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Certain cancer treatments
  • Aluminum-containing antacids.

 And finally, men with chronic diseases affecting the kidneys (including kidney stones), lungs, stomach, and intestines are also at increased risk of developing osteoporosis.

If you notice a loss of height, change in posture, or sudden back pain, it's important to inform your doctor. Your physician may take a medical history to identify risk factors and conduct a complete physical exam. If you are a man over the age of 70 or have broken a bone after the age of 50, the NFO recommends a bone density test which is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis. A bone density test is also recommended for men between the ages of 50 to 69 with risk factors.  

What You Can Do

It's not possible to cure osteoporosis but there are ways to slow it down. The magic formula seems to be a combination of:

  • Calcium (long billed as a bone-building nutrient)
  • Vitamin D (which aids in the absorption of calcium)
  • Weight-bearing exercise.

Calcium is a bit controversial, however. Critics content it only has marginal benefits in terms of bone health and that the foods containing the nutrient (dairy mostly) are high in fat and calories. Large doses can interfere with the absorption of a variety of drugs. Still, Dr. Siris recommends 1200 mg calcium per day for men over 50 and 800 to 1000 IUs (international units) of Vitamin D.

As for exercise, a combination of weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises is recommended by the NFO to make your body stronger and improve your sense of balance-one defense against falling.

Weight-bearing exercises are activities that force you to move against gravity while staying upright such as:

  • Jogging
  • Tennis
  • Jumping rope

Low-impact weight-bearing exercises like using a stair-step machine or walking on a treadmill may be better options for people prone to falling. Lifting weights makes muscles stronger. Aim to strengthen your major muscles groups with repetitive exercises two to three times each week in addition to getting 30-minutes of weight-bearing exercise every day.


National Osteoporosis Foundation

Sound Medicine Interview with Dr. Ethel Siris, president of the NOF (Feb. 2008)

Harvard Health Newsletter (2003)

Discovery's Edge Mayo Clinic's Online Research Magazine (Dec. 2009) [Dr. Khosla's study: J. Clin. Invest. (2000)106(12), 1553-1560