Bones have many important functions in the body—providing structure, protecting vital organs, anchoring muscles and storing calcium—so it should come as no surprise that it’s paramount to take good care of bone health. But how can we know whether our bones are healthy or not when they’re neither visible nor audible?
Your chances of developing osteoporosis—a condition that causes bones to become weak and breakable—depends on how much bone mass you acquire by age 30, and how rapidly it’s lost in the subsequent years. Bones are continuously changing: new bones are made as old bones are broken down. In the first few decades of your life, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone, resulting in an increase of bone mass. But around age 30, although the process continues, most people lose more bone mass than gain.
Other than the most obvious symptom of weak bones—if they’re brittle and easily fractured—there are other symptoms that may be indicators of early bone loss. Recognizing these signs as quickly as possible can help you take control of your health for improved quality of life down the road.
Receding gums can be the result of various different factors, but one common cause is bone loss. The jawbone holds your teeth, and like any other bone, it is susceptible to weakening in old age. As your jaw loses bone, your gums may begin to recede or even detach from your teeth. This can be so severe that diminishing jawbone strength can even lead to tooth loss. In studies of women, jaw bone loss has been linked to overall lower bone mineral density.
Decreased grip strength
Various studies have shown a correlation between the strength of your handgrip and the density of the bones in your forearms, spine and hip. In fact, in a recent study of postmenopausal women, handgrip strength was the most significant physical test factor tied to bone mineral density throughout the body.
Weak and brittle fingernails
If your nails keep breaking, it’s possible that your body is low in calcium and collagen—nutrients that are vital for good bone health. Frail and feeble fingernails can be one of the earliest signals that your whole body, including your bones, needs more of these crucial minerals.
Cramps, muscle aches and bone pain
Certain vitamins and minerals—including vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and potassium—are imperative to good bone health. Cramps, muscle aches and bone pain can be symptoms of inadequate levels of these essential nutrients. If the body is persistently deprived of these vitamins and minerals, excessive bone loss can occur later in life.
Loss of height can be attributed to fractures of the spine or slouching, which can both be early signs of weak bones. If the spine breaks without significant force, or if your poor posture stems from weakened muscles around the spine, it’s possible that you’ve begun a progressive loss in bone strength.
Low overall fitness
If your general fitness is declining, it’s plausible that bone mass will also decline with time. Studies have shown that weight-bearing exercise can help to slow bone loss, and several show it can even build bone by triggering deposits of calcium and bone-forming cells.
Although the average resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, experts suggest that having a resting pulse greater than 80 beats per minute increases your risk for hip, pelvis and spine fractures. This is likely due to the fact that your heart rate is a reflection of your fitness level: Resting heart rates tend to be higher in sedentary people.
You might think of osteoporosis as a problem developed later in life, something you don’t have to worry about for years, but the time to prevent these issues from progressing is now. The good news is that protecting your bone health is quite simple through minor changes to your diet, physical activity, and other lifestyle factors. To prevent or slow bone loss, include abundant amounts of calcium and vitamin D in your diet, incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, and avoid substance abuse of drinking and smoking.