What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a decrease in bone mass and strength causing increased susceptibility to fractures. It is the major cause of bone fractures in older people, especially postmenopausal women. Osteoporosis has no clear beginning, and until recently its first visible sign was a fracture of the hip, wrist or vertebrae.

Image of pelvis cross-section showing osteoporosis of the bones



During the mid-30s, everyone begins to lose very small amounts of bone. Bone loss accelerates at menopause, with some women losing up to 30% of bone mass in the first five years. A variety of medical and lifestyle factors may increase bone loss, causing osteoporosis to occur at a younger age.

Menopause is the most predictable medical cause of osteoporosis in women due to a decrease in estrogen levels. Estrogen loss, whether by menopause or surgical removal of the ovaries, has been shown to result in rapid bone loss. Women, especially Caucasian and Asian women, are more susceptible. Bone loss results in reduced bone strength that can easily lead to fractures in the wrist, spine and hip. Risk factors for developing osteoporosis are:


  • Menopause
  • Small bone structure
  • High consumption of alcohol or caffeine
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Some medications, such as corticosteroids, thyroid replacement, heparin, and dilantin
  • Some diseases such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis and conditions that impede intestinal absorption of calcium
  • Low dietary calcium
  • Scoliosis (spinal curvature)
  • Lack of exercise



Low adult bone density can be detected by plain radiographs, ultrasound, and x-ray densitometry.

Health Impact


  • 28 million people are affected in the United States.
  • Women are affected four times as often as men.
  • Osteoporotic hip fracture in elderly women often leads to disability and can be fatal
Elderly woman with cane being offered assistance



The best treatment for osteoporosis is prevention. Adequate calcium consumption and weight-bearing exercise by adolescent and young adult women can increase peak bone mass which can lower the risk of fractures in later years. Adequate consumption of calcium and vitamin D is essential throughout adulthood for healthy bones.

Estrogen replacement is an effective treatment to prevent postmenopausal bone loss and is effective in the prevention of fractures in women with or osteoporosis.

If a postmenopausal woman with established low bone mass or osteoporosis has a condition that prevents hormone replacement therapy, there are other effective treatments to prevent bone loss. Exercise such as walking and back extension exercises can stabilize or slightly increase bone mass and improve balance, and can strengthen muscles to prevent falls and injury.