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Osteopenia – the hidden bone condition affecting young people

Posted: 11/07/2019

Osteopenia occurs when a sufferer’s bones lose mineral density due to a lack of calcium. The bones become brittle and weaken, leading to osteoporosis if left untreated. Osteopenia is not a well-known condition and patients usually do not have any symptoms, so are unaware that they may need treatment until osteoporosis has already developed.

Patients can lower their risk of developing osteopenia by following a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. In particular, ensuring that enough calcium and vitamin D (which aids the absorption of calcium) is included in the diet will help maintain healthy bones. These steps can also be taken after osteopenia has already developed, to help prevent the progression of bone weakening and avoid osteoporosis. Anyone who is concerned or feels that they may be at risk of osteopenia can speak to their doctor and undergo tests to investigate their bone health.

Bone density scans (often a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry or ‘DEXA’ scan) can measure a patient’s bone mass and determine whether he or she is suffering from osteopenia or osteoporosis. Patients who are at risk of low bone mass, particularly older women, or those with a family history of osteoporosis, may be offered such scans, but these are not regularly provided to the general population.

Older people are considered to be more at risk of osteopenia, as bone mass tends to decrease over time. Women are also thought to be more prone to osteopenia than men, partly due to their naturally lower bone mass and partly, after the menopause, to falling oestrogen levels. Oestrogen is needed to maintain healthy bones, so women who experience early menopause or have their ovaries removed are particularly at risk of developing brittle bones.

However, a recent study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association has found that osteopenia may be more common in younger men and women than originally thought. The study found that osteopenia can affect patients at any age, and is more common in men aged 35 to 50 than it is in women. The study tested bone mineral density in the neck and hips of over 170 middle-aged participants. It was found that 28% of men and 26% of women showed significant signs of osteopenia. If left untreated, this will likely lead to osteoporosis and increased risk of fractures.

Victoria Johnson, associate in Penningtons Manches Cooper’s clinical negligence team, said: “Most younger or middle-aged people don’t worry about their bone density or consider bone health to be relevant to their age group. Equally, brittle bones are often believed to be a ‘female’ problem so men in particular may not be aware that they are at risk. Unfortunately, osteopenia does not usually show symptoms until it develops into osteoporosis, so sufferers may not realise that there may be something wrong until it is too late.

“The good news is that osteopenia is both preventable and treatable, often just with lifestyle changes rather than medication. If people are aware that this condition does not just affect older women then they will be more likely to consider their bone health, and this may influence their nutrition and exercise choices, or prompt them to undertake investigations if they are worried.”

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