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How Healthy Are Your Bones? Your Anti-Osteoporosis Plan

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Forget sticks and stones -- your morning run may be the bigger risk to bone health. Find out why young, fit women are more susceptible to injury and osteoporosis than they realize, and how you can build stronger bones now.

The Breaking Point

You like to think you've got an advanced degree when it comes to health: You wear sunscreen. You've traded cream for skim in your coffee. As for exercise, friends call you the Boot-Camp Queen. So what if we told you that these things could potentially put you at a much greater risk for developing osteoporosis?

"In my practice, I see healthy-looking women in their 20s and 30s with brittle bones who think they're doing all the right things for their bodies," says Elizabeth Shane, MD, a professor of medicine and endocrinology and an osteoporosis researcher at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "They are trying so hard to keep their weight low that they're skimping on important nutrients or working out too much. It's a recipe for early bone loss." In fact, a disturbing 15 percent of college-age women have lost enough bone mass to put them at an elevated risk for osteoporosis; another 2 percent already have the disease, according to a study from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Even children are suffering: Girls are 56 percent more likely to fracture an arm today than they were 30 years ago, which researchers speculate may be due in part to lower calcium intake.

Though thinner women are more susceptible to bone loss at a young age, the chance of any young woman getting properly screened is slim. "The medical community usually thinks of bone loss as a problem for older people," says Susan Brown, PhD, director of the Foundation for Better Bones, a nonprofit organization in East Syracuse, New York. "Doctors seeing a young woman with a fracture may not think to investigate the strength of her bones, even when the break occurs from a minor trauma." The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel that advises the Department of Health and Human Services, recommends regular bone-density scans (an enhanced form of x-ray technology that's used to measure bone loss) only for women 65 and older. There are no guidelines for younger women, opening the door to some serious errors.

Take 30-year-old Marcia Cronin, a strong and athletic gym enthusiast. Marcia took a tumble down a flight of stairs in 2001, fracturing her ankle. "The orthopedic surgeon in the ER was shocked by how severe the break was," Marcia says. "I remember him repeating, 'Really, just one flight of stairs?'" Three years later a car crash caused four separate fractures between her forearm and wrist. Her bones splintered so badly that titanium plates were needed to repair them. But it wasn't until a regular checkup in 2006 that her general practitioner thought to order a bone-density scan. The diagnosis: osteopenia, aka low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis. A later blood test showed that Marcia had a very low amount of vitamin D, a bone-building nutrient, in her system. Even though her D levels quickly returned to normal after she increased her intake of the vitamin, her bones never fully recovered. Marcia's doctors suspect that her naturally thin build and her genetics (she comes from a long line of small-framed women) also played a role in her low bone density. "It took so long to get my bones checked that they're now permanently weakened," Marcia says. Just last summer, she broke her foot by simply stepping off a curb.

Marcia's case is exceptionally severe, but it's not too late for most women to take charge of their bone health -- even after the "building" stage ends at around age 30, says Robert Recker, MD, director of the osteoporosis research center at Creighton University in Omaha. "New research shows that you can still fight osteoporosis well past 30 by maintaining what you've got," he says. Your plan starts here.

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