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Osteoporosis is the most common underlying cause of fractures in the elderly, but it is not frequently diagnosed or treated, even in individuals who have already suffered a fracture. An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, while another 34 million have low bone mass and are at risk for developing osteoporosis; 80 percent of those affected are women. By 2020, an estimated one in two Americans over age 50 will be at risk for osteoporosis and low bone mass.

Each year about 1.5 million people suffer a bone fracture related to osteoporosis, with the most common breaks in the wrist, spine, and hip. Fractures can have devastating consequences. For example, hip fractures are associated with an increased risk of mortality, and nearly one in five hip fracture patients ends up in a nursing home within a year. The direct care costs for osteoporotic fractures alone are up to $18 billion each year.1

Osteoporosis may be prevented and treated by getting the recommended amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and physical activity, and by taking prescription medication when appropriate. Calcium is found in diary foods, dark green vegetables, and fortified foods such as oatmeal and cold cereal. Vitamin D is made by the skin when it is exposed to the sun; however, getting sufficient vitamin D in this manner is not practical for many people. Vitamin D is also available in milk and other products that are fortified, and through supplements. Frequent physical activity that puts stress on the bones is also important. This should include regular physical activity, strength training, and activities that help maintain balance. Bone density tests are recommended for all women over 65 and for any man or woman who suffers a fracture after the age of 50. Treatment of osteoporosis has been shown to reduce the risk of subsequent fractures by 30-65 percent.1 Despite this recommendation, national data in 2004 indicate that only 19 percent of female Medicare beneficiaries aged 67 years and older who had a fracture received either a bone mineral density test or a prescription. Individual plans’ rates were consistently low, with almost all plans having osteoporosis management rates below 28.5 percent.

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Office of the Surgeon General; 2004.

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Women's Health USA 2006 is not copyrighted. Readers are free to duplicate and use all or part of the information contained on this page. Suggested Citation: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Women's Health USA 2006. Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.