“She got so thin!” a friend whispered to me, pointing to a mutual friend we had not seen for several months. The thin friend came over, and when complimented on her size, she told us she had lost weight following a diet than eliminated most food groups. “It was easy to lose weight,” she said, “because all I could eat were lean proteins and vegetables. I think I will stay on this diet forever!”
“You might want to add some dairy products to your diet,” I murmured. “You know, osteoporosis and all that.”
“Oh, I get plenty of calcium from vegetables,” she answered, “and anyway, dairy is fattening.”
Feeling like the bad witch who predicts dire consequences, I restrained myself from pointing out that she was a perfect storm for losing bone mass and breaking bones. She was beyond her menopause, which meant that the protective effect of estrogen on bone density was no longer functioning. It was unlikely that she did weight-bearing exercise to increase muscle mass and subsequently bone mass. Her arms and legs showed no obvious muscular development; they were visually just skinny tubes. Vitamin D intake, the last piece of the triad of interventions that support bone density, was probably also lacking, as the foods she ate were not fortified with vitamin D.
At her age—she was almost seventy—she should have been consuming about 1200 mg of calcium a day and 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D to maintain her bone mass. But because of her weight-loss diet, she wasn’t.
After a several month struggle to lose weight, it seems unfair that my now thinner friend is vulnerable to this debilitating disease. But she fits the profile of people likely to develop osteoporosis even without her weight loss. (Osteoporosis can occur in both men and women but women are more likely to have it. White and Asian women are most at risk that also increases with age.) If she had a family history of osteoporosis, smoked, consumed excessive amounts of alcohol, and had been severely underweight as an adolescent when bone mass is rapidly expanding, she would be facing an even greater chance of developing the disease.
It is not possible to diagnosis osteoporosis without a bone density scan. Despite her skinny appearance, her bones may have been fine. But the only way to tell is to have a type of x-ray called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA). Many women ten years or so beyond menopause will have the test so their physician can have a base line measurement of their bone strength. If the results indicate that osteoporosis may be developing, then the patient will be told to consume calcium-rich foods like milk, cottage cheese, yogurt or some vegetables such as kale…and also may be told to take a vitamin D supplement. Exercise is also important to promote bone density.
There are several drugs now available prescribed for osteoporosis but they have substantial side effects. The drugs are called bisphosphonates. Fosamax and Actonel are taken daily or weekly and another, Boniva, is taken monthly. One, Reclast, is given intravenously once a year; for those who have the early signs of the disease, once every two years. Most of the side effects, i.e., nausea, are tolerable, but a minority may developed osteonecrosis of the jaw or jawdeath. Fosamax and Boniva have been associated with this problem in which the bones in the jaw don’t heal after a minor injury like having a tooth pulled. Another equally rare side effect is a particular kind of fracture in the femur, the long bone of the leg.
Why drugs that promote bone growth and density should have the opposite effect on specific bony areas in the body is not yet known.The incidence is 1 in 1,000. It happened to an acquaintance of mine who had been taking one of the bisphosphonates. She had a dental procedure, and a few weeks later experienced severe jaw pain that was finally diagnosed as osteonecrosis. Now she was faced not only with osteoporosis, but also the fact that she could no longer take the drug that was supposed to halt it.
Preventing, or at least decreasing, the possibility of developing osteoporosis has to begin in adolescence but it is hard, if not impossible, to convince an 18 year-old to drink more or any milk or eat more, or any, yogurt or cottage cheese or kale. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that children are not consuming enough calcium during puberty when most bone growth occurs. Young women who are anorectic, or because of excessive exercise and low body fat stop menstruating, are at risk for developing bone loss at a young age. Teens should be getting 1000 to 1200 mg of calcium daily. This amount of calcium is not difficult to obtain with fat-free or low-fat dairy products, or calcium-fortified milk substitutes like soy or almond milk, which are also fortified with vitamin D. Unfortunately, a diet drink, instead of milk, is often the beverage of choice.
It seems as if the most compelling motivation to consume enough calcium and vitamin D in an effort to prevent osteoporosis is having a relative who fractured a hip or wrist because of this disease. There has to be a better way of promoting concern about this problem than the broken hip of an aunt. Bone density tests are expensive, time consuming and rarely offered to patients before menopause. What is needed is a simple, inexpensive test that detects the early stages of the disease, so nutritional intervention can start decades before the disorder develops—and perhaps an ad campaign showing that life can be “magical” after drinking milk.