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Bone up on Bone Health

Ways to treat and prevent this debilitating disease.

Karen Fernandes, a nurse in Dallas, Texas, appreciates the importance of keeping healthy, but when she suffered a back injury in her 40s, she was in for a surprise. “My orthopedist looked at my skeletal structure and said, ‘Oh my, your skeleton looks like you’re 80 years old,’” she remembers.

Fernandes, now 59, was diagnosed with osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bone, putting patients at higher risk for fractures.

“Those fractures can produce chronic pain, deformity, problems breathing, and a high risk of future fractures,” says Dr. Felicia Cosman, clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation in Washington, D.C. “Patients can have spine fractures or vertebral fractures without having any symptoms.” And resulting complications can be fatal. Yet despite the dangers, patients may not feel any deterioration—until a bone breaks.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 10 million people in the United States have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, and 34 million more have low bone mass, or osteopenia, which can be a precursor to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis, which results from a combination of lifestyle, nutrition, and genetics, strikes 20 percent of non-Hispanic white and Asian women, 10 percent of Latinas, and 5 percent of African American women over age 50 in the United States. And while 80 percent of osteoporosis victims are women, older men get it too, although the rates are lower: 7 percent for non-Hispanic whites and Asians, 4 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, and 3 percent for Hispanics.

But the lower rates for Hispanics may create a false sense of security. Recent studies indicate that the risk of developing osteoporosis is growing most rapidly among Hispanic women. Contributing factors include a traditional diet low in calcium and a high incidence of diabetes, a disease that may increase the risk of osteoporosis, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscoloskeletal and Skin Diseases, although this correlation has not been proven or explained.

The trend translates into spiraling health-care costs, with the price tag related to osteoporotic fractures among all Hispanics expected to soar from $754 million in 2005 to $2 billion per year in 2025, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Treatment and prevention

Lucia Tamayo, 65, a bilingual secretary who emigrated from her native Colombia to Rhode Island 34 years ago, found out she had osteoporosis at age 50, when her daughter suggested she get a checkup.

After being diagnosed, Tamayo didn’t let osteoporosis take control of her life. It’s important “not to feel as though the world has come to an end,” says Tamayo, who takes advantage of patient support groups and keeps up with the latest medical updates by attending conferences on osteoporosis. Instead, she says, stay optimistic and do all that is possible to strengthen your bones.

But you needn’t wait for a fracture or diagnosis, doctors say. Start a regime of diet, weight-bearing exercise, and testing to identify your risk, prevent deterioration, and slow the progression.

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