The 'silent thief': With no symptoms, osteoporosis is often not diagnosed until the disease is advanced and harder to treat

Osteoporosis Canada reports that suffering a bone fracture due to osteoporosis is more common than heart attack, breast cancer and stroke combined.

Nick Beare 3 minute read November 12, 2021

Osteoporosis usually isn't diagnosed until a person suffers a fracture. GETTY

Like every other cell in the human body, bone cells go through a process where old cells are replaced by new ones.

But as we get older, this natural process becomes less efficient, and we gradually lose bone tissue and mass.

Osteoporosis — from the Greek terms for ‘porous bone’ — is a disease that weakens the bones more rapidly than normal, causing them to become weak and brittle to the point where simple movements such as bending over, or minor injuries like a short fall, can cause a fracture. Fractures are most common in the wrist, spine, hips or shoulder, according to Osteoporosis Canada.

Bone deterioration caused by osteoporosis can take place over several years without any symptoms. That means many people don’t know they have the disease until a fracture occurs — a situation which has led to the disease’s common moniker: the ‘silent thief’.

Unfortunately, when osteoporosis is discovered due to a fracture, that usually means the disease is advanced and harder to treat. There is currently no known single cause of osteoporosis.

Risk Factors
Osteoporosis has a reputation as being a disease that only affects women and older people, but neither claim is true. While the disease is more common in women and people over 50, people of any race, gender and age can develop osteoporosis.

In fact, osteoporosis commonly develops during adolescence — there just usually aren’t any symptoms until later in life. According to the National Institute of Health, osteoporosis is most common in white and Asian women and while African-American and Hispanic women are less likely to develop it, they are still at significant risk.

In Canada, two million people are affected by osteoporosis and one in three women will break a bone due to the disease in their lifetime. For men, that number is one in five. Osteoporosis Canada reports that suffering a bone fracture due to osteoporosis is more common than heart attack, breast cancer and stroke combined.

Other risk factors for the development of osteoporosis can include smoking, long-term alcohol use, family history of the disease, a diet lacking in calcium and vitamin D, certain medications and other medical issues, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Though there are usually no symptoms of osteoporosis until a fracture occurs, a change in posture or height (getting gradually shorter) shortness or breath and lower back pain are associated with the disease.

Though experts don’t know exactly why osteoporosis develops, they understand how it develops and have discovered several effective treatments.

Hormone therapy is a common treatment for osteoporosis as well as several specific drug treatments. Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators or SERMs are another common treatment and are used to boost estrogen levels (estrogen helps build bone density). During menopause in particular, many women have decreased estrogen levels which can lead to a loss of bone density.

Cutting out or down on alcohol or smoking can help prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Making sure to exercise regularly is also beneficial, as people who live sedentary lifestyles tend to be more likely to develop the disease.

A diet rich in calcium vitamin D is one of the main ways to help prevent osteoporosis. Taking vitamin supplements can help, but making sure to eat foods such as salmon, kale, broccoli and dairy products can go a long way toward maintaining stronger bones, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Call your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms and have some of the common risk factors associated with the disease.

For more information on how to prevent and manage osteoporosis, some resources available in Canada include Osteoporosis Canada, the Osteoporosis Society of Canada and the Centre for Osteoporosis and Bone Health.