Like many other health screenings, scans that check for osteoporosis, a disease marked by weak and brittle bones, fell by the wayside during the pandemic, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. But the condition itself doesn’t take any time off.
One in 2 women and up to 1 in 4 men will break a bone due to osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. A woman’s risk of fracture is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer, and a man is more likely to break a bone due to osteoporosis than he is to get prostate cancer.
Some of these fractures can be life-altering, even deadly. About a quarter of hip fracture patients end up in nursing homes, and 24 percent of hip fracture patients 50 and over die within a year after the fracture.
But there’s an easy way to figure out if you’re at risk for an osteoporosis-related fracture: have a bone density test, which measures how strong your bones are, says Robert Adler, M.D., an endocrinologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
When should you get your first bone density scan?
The answer depends on your gender, Adler says. Age is also an important factor.
Groups like the United States Preventative Services Task Force, the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation and the North American Menopause Society all recommend osteoporosis screening for postmenopausal women who are 65 or older. But you may need to get that first scan earlier if you have any of the following risk factors.
- You’re a current or former smoker
- You use steroid medications like prednisone
- You’re underweight
- You have rheumatoid arthritis
- You’ve had a nontraumatic bone fracture (you’ve broken a bone after you fell from less than standing height)
- You regularly have at least three alcoholic drinks a day
- You have a chronic condition such as diabetes, thyroid disease or liver disease, or you went through early menopause.
If you don’t check any of these boxes, there’s no need to get that initial screen earlier. “There’s almost a knee-jerk reflex among many providers to order a bone density scan [before age 65], since we do know that osteoporosis and fractures are more common after menopause,” Adler says. But there’s no evidence that it helps, he notes.