Newly updated guidelines can help women decide when to have their bone density tested to determine their risk of fracture—and to potentially get the treatment needed to lessen those chances.
A bone density test measures how many grams of calcium and other minerals are present in a segment of bone. The bones that are most commonly tested are in the spine, hip and (less often) the forearm. The test enhances the accuracy of calculating your risk of breaking bones, so you can take earlier steps to prevent further weakening and ultimately fractures.
With age, just about everyone loses bone density—a process that typically starts at age 30 and then accelerates quickly in women past menopause, who lack sufficient levels of estrogen. In comparison, for men, bone loss is more gradual and often only becomes a serious concern after the age of 70.
Osteoporosis is the medical term for the condition of weakening bones and potentially breaking them, which can lead to chronic pain, disability, loss of independence and sometimes even death. Osteoporotic fractures are very common: More than half of people above age 50 have low bone density that increases their chances of breaking a bone from a minor accident, like colliding or tripping.
The new guidelines, issued by the United States Preventive Services Task Force, suggest that all women 65 and older go for bone density screenings—brief, noninvasive, safe, painless, and inexpensive tests covered by Medicare, called DEXA scans. In fact, the test even involves a level of radiation 50 times lower than that of a mammogram.
For women past menopause who are younger than age 65, the guidelines say a scan may be recommended, depending on their risk factors for osteoporosis. These include having experienced height loss, fractured a bone, used steroid medications long-term, received an organ or bone marrow transplant or dropped hormone levels.
In women, screening to prevent osteoporosis may reduce hip fractures, and the resulting treatment may reduce the risk of vertebral and nonvertebral fractures. Additionally, recent studies have shown that there has been no consistent evidence of consequences from the treatment.
So if you are past menopause, ladies should consider getting their bone densities checked by a medical professional. Whether you’re over, under, or right on the 65-year-old mark, you’ll be thankful later on if you take care of yourself today.