Bone health is important at every age and stage of life. The skeleton is our body’s storage bank for calcium — a mineral that is necessary for our bodies to function. Calcium is especially important as a building block of bone tissue.
We must get calcium from the foods we eat. If we do not have enough calcium in our diets to keep our bodies functioning, calcium is removed from where it is stored in our bones. Over time, this causes our bones to grow weaker.
Loss of bone strength can lead to osteoporosis — a disorder in which bones become very fragile and more likely to break. Older adults with osteoporosis are most vulnerable to breaks in the wrist, hip, and spine. These fractures can seriously limit mobility and independence.
Fortunately, there are many things we can do at every age to keep our bones strong and healthy.
Peak Bone Mass
Our maximum bone size and strength is called peak bone mass. Genes play a large role in how much peak bone we have. For example, the actual size and structure of a person’s skeleton is determined by genetic factors. Between the ages of 10 and 20 we can greatly increase our peak bone mass with a calcium-rich diet and regular weight-bearing exercise.
Although peak bone mass is largely determined by our genes, there are lifestyle factors — such as diet and exercise — that can influence whether we reach our full bone mass potential.
There is a limited time that we can influence our peak bone mass. The best time to build bone density is during years of rapid growth. Childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood are the times when we can significantly increase our peak bone mass through diet and exercise. Not surprisingly, we can also make choices that decrease peak bone mass, such as smoking, poor nutrition, inactivity, and excessive alcohol intake.
Most people will reach their peak bone mass between the ages of 25 and 30. By the time we reach age 40, however, we slowly begin to lose bone mass. We can, however, take steps to avoid severe bone loss over time. For most of us, bone loss can be significantly slowed through proper nutrition and regular exercise.
Although everyone will lose bone with age, people who developed a higher peak bone mass when young are better protected against osteoporosis and related fractures later in life.
Some people, however, are at higher risk for bone loss and osteoporosis because of problems with the way their bodies remodel bone. A healthy diet and exercise can help, but bone will still be lost at a faster rate. The good news is that in recent years, medications have been developed to treat this metabolic problem. In severe cases, bone loss may even be reversed with newer, bone-forming medications.
Gender and Peak Bone Mass
Men have a higher peak bone mass than women. Men accumulate more skeletal mass than women do during growth, and their bone width and size is greater. Because women have smaller bones with a thinner cortex and smaller diameter, they are more vulnerable to developing osteoporosis. Although men have a higher peak bone mass, they also are at risk for osteoporosis, especially after age 70 when bone loss and fracture risk increases significantly.