measuring your bone health

Age-related low bone density, or osteopenia, affects as many as 34 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. Untreated or unrecognized osteopenia can lead to osteoporosis, a more advanced form of bone loss that increases the risk of a fracture and the debilitation that often ensues. The Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation notes that bone loss is especially menacing for women, with the incidence of a fracture greater than that of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined.

Fortunately, you can take steps to slow or even reverse bone loss by managing certain health conditions, taking medication, modifying your lifestyle, or all three. The first line of defense is a baseline bone density test. Sometimes called bone densitometry, a scanner uses dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA, pronounced and often spelled DEXA) to measure the percentage of calcium and other bone material in a scanned segment of bone—your bone density. The results will guide your doctor in monitoring your bone health and managing your risk for fracture. Comparing this baseline reading to subsequent scans can lead to early detection of osteopenia, before it advances to osteoporosis, or help monitor the progression of osteoporosis.

A DEXA scan is simple, quick and noninvasive. At a radiology lab, the patient lies on a table while a scanner arm passes above the body, typically focusing on the hips, spine, thighbone, neck or wrist. The results produce two numerical values (for each body part): a T-score, which compares your bone mass to that of the average healthy young adult; and a Z-score, which is compared to the average bone mass of people of the same age and gender.

Scores can differ in the same individual, depending on the body part(s), but your physician will focus on your lowest T-score. A score of -1 to -2.4 indicates osteopenia. A score of -2.5 or lower would suggest osteoporosis. Armed with this information, your doctor may recommend medication, exercise (to promote bone health while limiting fall risk), and/or nutritional modifications.

Almost certainly, your doctor will order regular (usually biannual) DEXA scans to keep tabs on your bone density, and to track the effects of treatment—modifying your medication as necessary.

The bottom line: Make regular DEXA scans a part of your comprehensive approach to optimal health and longevity.

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