A silent disease Featured

4:23am EDT October 29, 2006
While most people think of the elderly when they think of osteoporosis, the disease is in fact a major public health threat to 55 percent of the people 50 years of age and older. It is estimated that 10 million people in the U.S. are living with the disease, while almost 34 million more have low bone mass, significantly increasing their risk of osteoporosis. People who weigh less than 127 pounds are considered at highest risk for developing osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is one of today’s most under-diagnosed and under-treated diseases, says Michele Hatherill, M.D., a general orthopedic surgeon in private practice at Akron General Medical Center.

“Osteoporosis is a silent disease with no symptoms, making it that much more difficult to detect before it’s too late,” she says. “But the good news is, there is a simple and inexpensive test that can identify the presence of the disease, allowing for effective treatment to greatly reduce the chance of a bone fracture.

Smart Business spoke with Dr. Hatherill about osteoporosis and how the disease can be detected and treated.

What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is the most common metabolic bone disease. It is characterized by low bone mass and increased bone porosity. However, the real problem with osteoporosis is that the disease causes fragile bones and an increased risk of bone fractures. What would otherwise be a minor injury will often result in a broken bone, causing pain, suffering and potentially long-term disability.

How can osteoporosis be prevented?
Loss of bone mass is a normal part of the aging process. Everyone begins to experience some levels of loss after the age of 30. The first thing that people should do to reduce their risk of osteoporosis is to ensure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet from an early age. Many young people, especially women, don’t ever reach their maximum bone density because of an inadequate diet, making them especially vulnerable as they get older.

The best way to prevent osteoporosis is to eat a balanced diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D, participate in weight-baring exercises such as walking or running, maintain a smoke-free lifestyle, and avoid excessive amounts of alcohol. Most people should consider taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, especially women, who have a much higher risk of osteoporosis than men.

How can osteoporosis be managed?
Once someone has been diagnosed with osteoporosis, it is essential that he or she increase the amount of calcium and vitamin D through diet supplements as well as incorporate weight-bearing exercises into a workout routine. There are also several prescription medications available that can help stabilize and even rebuild bone mass loss. These medications will greatly reduce the risk of fractures. Those who detect the disease early have the best results from treatment.

How is osteoporosis detected?
Unfortunately, most people don’t find out that they have osteoporosis until after they’ve fractured or broken a bone — and then it’s more difficult to treat because the disease has already progressed to a point that makes them vulnerable to future breaks and fractures. Treatment is most successful if the disease is detected in its early stages.

A simple and inexpensive test can provide people with a baseline and allow them to track their bone density over time. The test, known as a DEXA scan, takes just 5 to 10 minutes, is painless and is similar to an X-ray, but with less X-ray exposure. Many insurance companies will cover the cost of the test — especially for those who are considered at-risk for osteoporosis — and Medicare covers the cost for anyone over the age of 65.

If more people had a DEXA scan done, we could go a long way toward preventing osteoporosis. This test allows a patient and doctor to monitor bone density and make decisions on treatment, including medication, as necessary, to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

How can businesses help their employees learn more about or even prevent osteoporosis?
Our best prevention tools are education and early detection. Employers can help by providing information to their employees about osteoporosis and the DEXA scan. But the best way employers can help is to encourage their insurance companies to reimburse employees for the DEXA scan or look for a health plan that pays for this important test.

MICHELE HATHERHILL, M.D., is a general orthopedic surgeon in private practice at Akron General Medical Center. Reach her at (330) 344-1980 or mlh7611@aol.com.