We all dream of a long and vibrant life. And, in Canada, we’re living longer than ever before, with average life expectancy now topping 80 years. Long and vibrant lives imply healthy lives free of pain and illness.
But some conditions can arrive as we age that, with the right dietary and lifestyle choices earlier in our lives, we can forestall. At the very least, we can diminish their impacts.
Two of these conditions—osteoporosis, a bone disease, and osteoarthritis, a disease of the joints connecting our bones—can cause significant pain and loss of function, compromising the quality of our lives in later years.
What’s the story behind our bones?
Our bones undergo a constant, dynamic process of cellular breakdown and rebuilding. We achieve peak bone mass sometime between our late teens and early thirties. From this point onward, bone breakdown starts to happen more quickly than the rebuilding process. If this imbalance leads to significant decreases in bone density, we’re at an increased risk of fracturing the spine, hips, and other bones. This condition is called osteoporosis
How does osteoporosis happen?
Many considerations affect our osteoporosis risk. Factors that we can’t change include
- family history
- having small bones to begin with
- being female
- medications taken for other conditions including steroids, anti-seizure drugs, diuretics, proton pump inhibitors, and blood thinners that deplete bone density
- cancer therapies that block the production of estrogen or testosterone
- menopause, when bone-preserving estrogen levels naturally decline
- high levels of cortisol and natural or synthetic thyroid hormones
- digestive issues that lead to poor absorption of calcium; two-thirds of those with celiac disease have low bone density at diagnosis , and digestive surgery can further compromise calcium absorption
Do I have osteoporosis?
Called “the silent thief,” osteoporosis may progress unnoticed until bones break under normal stress. Symptoms associated with weakened bones include loss of height, backache, and stooped posture. Sadly, we may not realize that we’re at risk until a fracture occurs.
Did you know?
Eighty percent of fractures in people over the age of 50 are caused by osteoporosis.
When should I see a health care practitioner?
Check your osteoporosis risk at age 50, and get your height measured annually. If you’re at risk of osteoporosis or you’re over 65, a bone density test can be conducted to see if any bone loss has occurred.
How do I prevent osteoporosis?
Calcium is a bone health all-star, and inadequate levels of this nutrient (under 1,200 mg per day) are implicated in the development of osteoporosis. Besides milk products and fortified foods, good sources of calcium include leafy greens, blackstrap molasses, canned fish (with their bones), almonds, and beans.
Vitamin D also aids in calcium absorption, and bone loss can occur when our blood levels are insufficient. Many foods such as milk, milk alternatives, and juices have vitamin D added to them. Natural sources of this vitamin include eggs and fish such as eel, mackerel, salmon, herring, and sardines.
Magnesium, zinc , and vitamin K are other important factors in bone health, though their precise role is still being studied. A nourishing diet with a focus on fruits and vegetables will also provide a nutritional foundation for the bone-building process.
It may be necessary to supplement both calcium and vitamin D to make sure you’re getting enough every day.
In doses exceeding 1,800 mg per day, magnesium shows promise as an important treatment alongside calcium and vitamin D.
4 Potential Bone Busters
- A diet based on snacks and processed foods—depletes bone density
- Daily intake of more than 1,600 mg of salt—draws calcium from the bones
- More than two drinks per day of alcohol—will speed bone breakdown
- Smoking—another well-known risk factor for osteoporosis
What are some bone-building strategies?
Regular exercise is known to offer protection against bone loss. Evidence strongly suggests at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity (when it’s slightly difficult to catch your breath) or vigorous intensity activity (when you’re huffing and puffing) at least five days a week.
Any exercise that works against gravity will put a controlled load on the bones, promoting bone strength. Try walking, hiking, running, jumping, and any sports that incorporate these activities. If you’re at risk of a fracture, opt for low-impact exercises, like walking and elliptical workouts, that don’t jolt the bones.
Consistency is key
A lifetime of regular exercise provides the greatest protective benefits, so find an activity that you know you’ll stick with long term. Dedicate a specific time in your schedule to a bone-building fitness routine. Join a class, go for walks with a friend, or do quick 10-minute workouts to eliminate all obstacles that could stop you from staying active.
If you’re deficient in bone-building nutrients, it may be time to supplement. Levels listed below are recommended daily intakes, but higher levels may be used if you’re starting from a state of deficiency.
|Calcium||Women under 50
Women over 50
Men under 70
|Vitamin D||Men and women under 70
Men and women over 70
|Magnesium||Women under 30
Women over 30
Men under 30
Men over 30
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of over 100 related conditions that profoundly impact joint function.
How does osteoarthritis happen?
In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage covering the ends of bones in our joints gradually wears away, leading to painful bone-on-bone contact; hands, spine, hips, and knees are often most affected.
We’re more likely to develop arthritis in areas of overuse or previous injury. Women may be slightly more susceptible to this condition, though risk increases in both sexes with age.
Extra weight = strain on joints
Obesity is one of the most important risk factors for the development of osteoarthritis . Carrying extra body weight puts added strain on our joints, accelerating the process of cartilage breakdown.
Do I have osteoarthritis?
Classic symptoms of osteoarthritis include
- joint pain (especially after activity)
- joint stiffness after periods of inactivity
- loss of joint flexibility and strength
- joint tenderness when touched, creaking when moved, or development of small bumps
When should I see a health care practitioner?
It’s time to check with a health care practitioner if you’ve had joint pain or stiffness for more than a few weeks, or if your joint pain comes with swelling, redness, or tenderness and warmth around the joint.
How do I prevent osteoarthritis?
Exercise on a regular basis helps build and tone joint-supporting muscles, which in turn reduces stress on the joint itself. If you experience pain in your joints, stop and rest, since pushing through pain can cause injury, bringing a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis.
Maintain a healthy weight since being overweight is one of the predictors of osteoarthritis; extra weight places an extra burden on our joints. A plant-based diet protects against osteoarthritis, and specific foods such as garlic and non-citrus fruits may be particularly helpful .
Eat anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which can play a role in prevention, as compared to the pro-inflammatory properties of highly processed, sweetened, and animal-based foods.
Include omega-3 fatty acids which are well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties. While their effect on osteoarthritis is still being explored, omega-3s have the potential to slow the progression of this condition. Include cold water, oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies in your diet for an omega-3 boost.
Spice it up with extracts made from ginger and turmeric which show promise as healthy helpers in controlling osteoarthritis-related pain, though their preventive role is largely unknown. Green tea may also be helpful in the prevention and treatment of arthritis.
Already have arthritis? Consider these treatments in consultation with your health care practitioner.
|chondroitin sulphate||component of joint cartilage—may improve cartilage volume and preserve joint space||500 mg two times per day|
|glucosamine sulphate||component of joint cartilage—may delay arthritis progression, reduce pain, and improve joint function||500 mg three times per day|
|eggshell membrane||natural substance containing factors that contribute to joint tissues—may increase flexibility and decrease pain||500 mg per day|
|curcumin||anti-inflammatory plant extract from turmeric—may decrease arthritis symptoms and blood markers of inflammation||500 mg two times per day|
|acupuncture||the application of needles to specific points along energetic meridians—may increase joint function and reduce pain||variable, based on severity and response to treatment, but some improvement should be expected after one to three treatments per week over several weeks|
|methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)||anti-inflammatory molecule occurring naturally in the body—may improve pain and function scores in osteoarthritis||3,000 mg per day|
|Boswellia serrata||Ayurvedic herb—may improve joint function and decrease frequency of flare-ups||1,000 mg per day|
Daily activities as exercise
Your body doesn’t know the difference between a structured exercise program and normal movement at a faster pace. Take advantage of this by using daily activities to achieve the same benefits exercise brings.
|Moderate intensity||Vigorous intensity|
|walking briskly||climbing stairs or walking uphill|
|gardening: weeding, sowing seeds, watering, planting||gardening: digging, shovelling, raking|
|walking your pet||hiking|
|cleaning: washing windows, vacuuming, mopping||moving furniture or carrying heavy loads (greater than 44 lbs/20 kg)|
|pushing a motorized lawn mower||pushing a non-motorized lawn mower|