What is osteoporosis?

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The World Health Organization (WHO) defines osteoporosis as a systemic skeletal disease, characterised by low bone mass and micro-architectural deterioration of bone tissue with a consequent increase in bone fragility and susceptibility to fracture.

It's a myth that osteoporosis is a normal part of ageing and that only women are susceptible. We now know that this disease can also affect young people as well as men.

Osteoporosis is called the “silent disease”, because it progresses undetected for many years and the first sign of this disease is usually a fracture. Spinal fractures may be painless, but often lead to severe back pain that can last for several weeks. Compression fractures of the spine occur, because the weakened bone collapses under the body's weight. This causes a loss of height and increased curvature of the spine (Dowager's hump).

Most hip fractures are also the result of osteoporosis and can have devastating consequences, which can include institutionalisation, reduced functional capacity and even death. Hip fracture rates in South African Caucasians are similar to those in Europe and the USA.

Facts about osteoporosis

• More than one third of women over the age of 50 and nearly half of those over age 70 are affected by this disease.
• Osteoporosis in men is on the increase, and one in five men will develop this disease.
• In most cases the patient is 50-70 years old, before osteoporosis is diagnosed; it can however, affect women and some men in their mid–thirties, or even earlier.
• Without the right preventative therapy, one out of every three White and Asian post-menopausal women will have a spine fracture.
• A woman's risk of sustaining a hip fracture is equal to the combined risk of developing breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.
• Up to 20 percent of hip fracture victims die within one year; 15-25 percent will need institutionalisation and less than half will regain full functional capability.
• In developed countries, spinal osteoporosis is six times more common in women than in men, and hip fractures two to three times. In developing countries, including South Africa, the incidence of hip fractures in men approximates that of women. Although less common among black people, osteoporosis occurs in all population groups and recent evidence suggests that its prevalence is increasing.
• Although treatable, the prevention of osteoporosis is much more effective. This requires an understanding of predictive factors so that the likelihood of osteoporosis may be pre-empted. An understanding of these things will also lead to knowledge about lifestyle adaptations and available to prevent further bone loss.
• Recent advances in treatment options have resulted in a 50-70 percent reduction in the rate of osteoporotic fractures.

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