Bone health is not my area of expertise, but I just learned something about osteopenia that is so shocking that I feel compelled to share it.
I just had my first bone density test and my joke ahead of time was that if I didn’t pass, everything I know to be true is a lie. So you can imagine my surprise when they diagnosed me with osteopenia! I was shocked – how can this be when I am the poster child for how to live to prevent osteoporosis?
As you can see by what I grow in my garden, I eat like a giraffe – lots of leafy greens. I also eat a wide variety of calcium-containing foods. I do both of the recommended osteoporosis-preventing types of exercise – weight-bearing (walking or hiking every day) and resistance (practice yoga four days a week). So how on earth did my test results land me in the yellow bar of the test results? Not green for normal or red for osteoporosis, but right smack dab in the osteopenia category.
The answer is disturbing – not in terms of my risk for osteoporosis – but in terms of companies that are profiting from fear. The reason behind my test results is that the test is comparing me to the average 30-year-old woman – and that the slight thinning in my bones measured by the test is normal!
Here is where it gets disturbing. (You can click here for one of my sources for this information.) It turns out that scientists have a good sense of the type of bone changes that lead to increased risk of fracture – and this is when a diagnosis of osteoporosis is made. However, a group of scientists felt the need to come up with a term to describe the thinning of bone as a person ages. They dubbed this “osteopenia” but did not intend for it to be seen as a disease state – and certainly not one that required treatment.
However, drug companies like to sell drugs. It turns out that a major osteoporosis medication was not meeting sales expectations. Capitalizing on the scientist’s “osteopenia” label, this company prompted the development of lower-cost bone density screening machines – making them appealing for doctors to install in their offices. These machines produce that nifty little green/yellow/red chart that makes a dot in the yellow area look so alarming. And these alarming results are a great way to sell more medication. So, the system is a win for the machine manufacturers, the drug makers, and the average physician who can now bill for the screening as well as any follow-up visits if a person started taking osteoporosis medication. The loser in this scenario is people like you and me who are being treated for something that may be nothing more than normal aging.
The nurse at my doctor’s office sent me home with the recommendation to start taking calcium supplements (2400 mg per day) and instructions for how to use a resistance band. She said I might hear from my doctor if he also wanted me to start taking an osteoporosis medication (no call yet!)
Here is the bottom line – osteoporosis is a bad thing. It puts you at risks for fractures, which can lead to other health problems and even premature death. (And if you have IBS, you might be at greater risk for osteoporosis – click here to read more about that!) Therefore it is important to eat calcium-rich foods, to make sure that your vitamin D levels are adequate, to eat a clean diet, and to do both weight-bearing and resistance exercises.
So, although I am no longer concerned about my osteopenia diagnosis, I am not going to turn a blind eye to any risk for osteoporosis and I will keep doing all of my healthy things. What I am not going to do is to take a calcium supplement, as there are concerns about calcium supplementation increasing one’s risk for osteoporosis. I will go back next year to be re-screened. I want to see how my bones look compared to themselves – not as compared to a 30-year-old woman.
Please remember that I am not a medical doctor. You need to have an open discussion with your doctor about your own personal risk factors. The information I have just provided you is intended to prompt you to do your own research so that you can make an educated decision for yourself – as opposed to be unnecessarily treated due to a self-serving nifty little color-coded chart.
UPDATE: My primary care physician has now informed me that the recommendations for osteoporosis screening put out by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force have changed. In the absence of risk factors, screening should not occur until a woman is 65 years old. If my gynecologist had known this, I wouldn’t have been screened at all – and would have been spared from unnecessary testing and anxiety.
The Bottom Line?!?!
Get educated and work with your doctor on an approach that is safe and conservative, not one that is profitable for unscrupulous companies.