Have you heard of bone density testing? A bone density test determines if you have osteoporosis—a disease in which your bones are fragile and more likely to break. It can also determine if you have osteopenia—this is when your bones are weaker than normal but not so weak they can break easily. Osteopenia puts you at further risk for developing osteoporosis or could even be considered the beginning stages of it.
Bone density testing measures the quantity of bone at specific areas in your body (lumbar region and hip area) because these areas contain a large quantity of trabecular bone—the spongy, lattice-like bone that tends to lose density as you age. Plus, measurements taken at these areas are very easy to replicate to assess change over time.
Bone density testing is done by something called a DXA machine. The test uses a very low level of radiation—about 1/10 of the radiation found in a chest x-ray, or in comparison, equal to what you’d be exposed to on a airplane flight from California to New York. (Fun fact: I worked as a radiology technologist for many years and used to perform bone density tests on patients!) Naturally, I advocate for low radiation exposure, but the risk here is so minimal for a great reward.
For the patient, the test is very easy. You lay on a table for about 15 minutes and the machine will slowly move overhead. Heck, you could even take a mini-nap if you wanted to! Just be sure to avoid any metal on your clothing—if you don’t, you may have to change into a gown prior to the test.
Many times, people don’t know they have osteoporosis until it’s too late! With the technology we have available today, that is silly! I am a huge advocate for preventative medicine and encourage many of my clients to have a bone density test done if they meet any of the following criteria:
- women 65 or older*
- men 70 or older
- post-menopausal women over 50*
- women with pre-mature ovarian failure*
- previous broken bones or fractures unrelated to a high-impact incident
*Women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis—female bones are smaller and less dense to begin with and they lose more bone as they due to the loss of estrogen at menopause.
People with specific chronic or inflammatory conditions may also be at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis—it is important to have a candid conversation with your health care provider about your health and risk for developing osteoporosis. If you meet the conditions above, there is a very good chance your insurance will cover the test. If not, it is fairly inexpensive to pay for out of pocket.
Other factors around bone density to consider:
As long as I eat calcium I should be good, right? Well, not quite. First of all, there is conflicting information on how much calcium is appropriate—I have read articles, studies, and recommendations that state anywhere from 500mg-1200mg/day depending on age, gender, and state of your bone health.
In our society, we tend to think adding more of any sort of vitamin or mineral in supplement form is a good thing, but that’s not always the case. Plus, it’s not always about how much you eat or supplement of something but how well you absorb it. Due to the fact that dairy is prevalent in the Standard American Diet, I would assume most people easily hit the recommended amount of calcium per day. For example, 1 oz. of cheese is approximately 200 mg of calcium. If you don’t eat dairy, it may be a little bit more tricky, but completely doable. Non-dairy foods high in calcium include collard greens, broccoli, kale, figs, oranges, almonds, fortified almond milk, sardines (with bones), and salmon (with bones). If you are concerned about your calcium intake, I recommend logging your food for one week (by hand or online) and calculating your average daily intake of calcium.
Calcium is not the only player in the game either. Vitamin D and vitamin K2 are also critical for strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D helps your body absorb the calcium you eat. To help your body produce vitamin D, spend 15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen each day. (Lather up after your 15 minutes!) Vitamin D can be found in fermented pastured egg yolks and grass-fed dairy (can also be found in a cod liver oil supplement). I usually recommend my clients to get their vitamin D levels tested each year—many people, especially in the midwest, are low. Vitamin K2 helps to direct the show—it orchestrates the placement of calcium in your bones. Vitamin K2 can be found in grass-fed dairy (yogurt or kefir), grass-fed butter, chicken breast, and ground beef (can also be found in cod liver oil supplement).
Lastly, you may want to limit foods high in phytates, like grains. Phytates are antinutrients that bind with a variety of minerals, including calcium, and prohibit you from absorbing them properly. For example, if you eat a piece of grass-fed cheese with a piece of bread you will absorb less calcium than you would if you were to eat just the cheese.
Exercise is a key component of healthy bones—it is best to do a combination of weight-bearing and strength exercises.
Smoking increases your risk of osteoporosis. For many reason beyond having healthy bones, it would be worth your while to stop!
I hope you found all of this information helpful. Don’t be shy to talk to your health care provider about this. In fact, if you feel strongly that you meet the criteria talked about in this article but your provider gives you push-back, insist! It’s your health, not theirs!
If you live in the greater South Bend area, I would be happy to make recommendations for locations that perform bone density tests!