Eileen C. West, MD, is board certified in internal medicine.

Many men and women experience thinning of their bones as they age. More than 10 million Americans over age 50 have osteoporosis, which causes weak, thin bones prone to fractures. Another 34 million have osteopenia, or low bone mass, which puts them at risk for osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis and broken bones can be serious. As many as one in 2 people who have a hip fracture end up with life-threatening complications within a year of the break. The best way to avoid serious complications? Make sure you don’t have a fracture in the first place.

Fortunately, brittle bones are not inevitable. Medications can slow bone loss and prevent serious fractures. That’s why it’s important to have your bone density tested before damage occurs.

Who Should Be Screened?

Women are 4 times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis. Still, the disease can affect both men and women of any racial or ethnic group.

In general, we recommend that women have their first bone density test at age 65, and men be tested at age 70. However, you might benefit from earlier screening if you have risk factors associated with bone loss:

  • If you smoke or consume more than 2 alcoholic beverages daily
  • If you’ve taken steroid medications for longer than 3 months
  • If you have had an organ transplant and take anti-rejection mediations
  • If you take seizure medicines
  • If you have a parent who has had a hip fracture
  • If you have certain health conditions including hyperthyroidism, parathyroid problems, rheumatoid arthritis or Type 1 diabetes.

The gold standard to screen bone density is a test called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (commonly known as DEXA or DXA). The test takes X-rays of the hip and spine to measure bone density and predict your future fracture risk. DEXA screening requires very low levels of radiation (about 1/100th of the amount in a typical chest X-ray).

Boosting Bones

When DEXA testing reveals a problem, patients have a variety of options. In some cases, low bone density turns out to be associated with other problems, such as very low vitamin D levels or an overactive thyroid gland. Treating those underlying issues can slow the rate of bone loss.

We also have a number of medications that can slow bone thinning or even rebuild new bone. By managing osteoporosis with medications, we can cut fracture risk in half.

At the Inova Women’s Comprehensive Health Center, we offer convenient DEXA testing in an outpatient setting. The test itself takes only about 10 minutes, and I’m on site in the clinic to interpret the results.

No one wants to hear they have weak bones. But by diagnosing the condition early, we can take control to prevent fractures.

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