This is why osteoporosis is far more common in post-menopausal women than in any other demographic. That doesn’t necessarily mean that men are completely out of the woods however. In a man’s body, testosterone is responsible for what estrogen does in the female body. Men however, experience a gradual decline in testosterone as they age, as opposed to the sudden, dramatic drop off in estrogen that women experience. This makes them less susceptible to developing osteoporosis, but not immune.
Now that we’ve gotten the cell biology out of the way, let’s talk calcium. Calcium is very important within the body and has far more functions than just building bone. It is essential to the proper function of multiple systems and is therefore tightly regulated in the body. There is a very narrow window of blood calcium concentration that your body likes to maintain, and it will maintain that concentration at the expense of bone mass.
If your body’s blood calcium drops, the easiest way to get it back to where it needs to be is to activate the degraders to break down bone and release its calcium (bone is made from crystals of calcium and phosphate much like salt is made from crystals of sodium and chloride). Therefore, it is essential that you take in enough calcium in your diet to ensure that you are maintaining a proper blood concentration. If you don’t, your body will resort to breaking down bone to maintain those levels.
Unfortunately, maintaining proper calcium levels in your diet is not enough to keep osteoporosis at bay. There are numerous other pharmacological therapies out there to help prevent the onset of osteoporosis, but they will not be discussed here. The reason for this is that there is another very effective, inexpensive therapy for the prevention of osteoporosis that has very few adverse side effects. This therapy is resistance training. That’s right; grandma needs to stay active.
The reasoning for this goes back to the late 19th century and what is known as Wolff’s Law, created by a German surgeon by the name of Julius Wolff. Wolff’s Law explains that bone will adapt to the forces that are placed on it. Basically, bone will become stronger if and only if it needs to. When bone is put under stress, the bone will adapt so that it is better suited to withstand that stress in the future. On the flip side of that, if the bone is not put under any significant stress, it will become weaker simply because it doesn’t need to be strong.
It requires a significant amount of energy to maintain bone density and to constantly lay down new bone, so if your body doesn’t feel like it needs to maintain a high level of bone density, it won’t. This is the reason astronauts have weak bones when they spend too much time in space. The absence of gravity keeps their bones from bearing the necessary weight to maintain normal bone density; this presents a problem when planning long space trips such as trips to Mars.
Modern medicine has proven Wolff’s Law to be true, and has discovered the cellular mechanism responsible. Suffice it to say that the process involves the builders and degraders mentioned earlier, plus a few other key players that are not worth mentioning at this juncture, and I’ll spare you the pain of diving back into cellular biology.
It is enough to understand that we can use the principle of Wolff’s Law to prevent osteoporosis through resistance training. By going to the gym and lifting weights on a regular basis, you are forcing your bones to adapt to the increased workload by getting stronger. It is also important to point out, that the intensity of your weightlifting sessions is also important. It’s not enough to go push around a weight that you can do 20 to 50 reps of in one set without breaking a sweat. Remember, your bones will adapt proportionally to the stress that is placed on them.
More weight equals more stress. You should be working to make yourself stronger, and not just going through the motions. With that said, this brings up a safety issue. If you are not accustomed to lifting weights, you need to find someone that can help you get started. If you are reading this, and are indeed a post-menopausal woman, you should be seeing your physician regularly and talking with them about prevention of osteoporosis. In fact, if you’re over 65, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that you receive routine screenings for osteoporosis.*
During one of these visits, talk with your doctor about the fact that you want to start resistance training, but don’t know how to get started. Your doctor will be able to point you in the right direction. In the mean time, staying active is an excellent way to help prevent not only osteoporosis, but several diseases that affect older populations.
The information presented in this article is based on the current medical literature as of the date posted and is intended for educational purposes only. This information can be found in the following resources.
- Brunton, L., et. al. Goodman & Gilman’s The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, 12th ed. (pp. 1170, 1175-1179, 1280-1283, 1290-1302)
- Gropper, SS and Smith, JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 6th edition; 2013 (pp. 425-454)
- Katzung, Bertram G., Basic & Clinical Pharmacology. 12th ed. (pp. 769-786)
- Kumar V. et al. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, 8th Edition, W.B. Saunders Co., 2010 (pp. 769-786, 1214-1216)
- Ross MH, Pawlina W Histology. A Text and Atlas. 6th Edition. Williams & Wilkins; 2011 (pp. 218-253).
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