“We’ve just found out that Dad is osteopenic. What is that and how do we treat it?”
When your elderly Mum or Dad receives a diagnosis like osteopenia, it can be a source of concern and uncertainty.
Osteopenia is a medical condition that affects bone density, and while it’s not as severe as osteoporosis, it still requires attention and care.
In this article, we delve into what osteopenia is, its causes, risk factors and most importantly, what your Dad or Mum can do about it in order to maintain his bone health.
What is osteopenia?
Osteopenia is a condition characterised by lower than normal bone density, but not to the extent of osteoporosis. Bone density refers to the amount of mineral content in the bones, and low bone density can increase the risk of fractures and bone-related issues.
Think of bones as a bank; when bone density is high, it’s like having a robust savings account that can withstand the occasional withdrawal (fracture).
However, in osteopenia, the “savings account” is not as substantial, making bones more vulnerable. Now remember, osteopenia is the stage before osteoporosis; without treatment it can turn into osteoporosis.
Take advantage of this early detection and consider the following treatment methods below.
Causes and risk factors
- Aging (65 years and over): Osteopenia is often a natural consequence of aging. As we get older, our bodies may struggle to maintain bone density, leading to a gradual decrease in bone strength.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes, particular in women during menopause and in men with age, can affect bone density. Decreased estrogen levels in women and testosterone levels in men can contribute to bone loss.
- Inactivity: A sedentary lifestyle can lead to a decline in bone density. Weight-bearing exercises and physical activity are essential for maintaining strong bones.
- Medications and medical conditions: Certain medications and medical conditions can affect bone health. It’s important to discuss potential risk factors with a health provider.
What can your Mum or Dad do about osteopenia?
- Consult a healthcare provider: The first step is to consult a healthcare provider, such as a family doctor, osteoporosis specialist or a physiotherapist. They can confirm the diagnosis, assess Mum or Dad’s risk factors, and recommend a personalised treatment plan.
- Lifestyle Changes: Importantly, they can make several lifestyle changes to help manage osteopenia. A good place to start is engaging with a physiotherapist for weight-bearing and resistance exercises (more on this later) to stimulate muscle growth and increase bone density. Other factors such as eating a balanced diet, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption can all play an important role in tackling osteopenia.
As physiotherapists, we want to highlight the positive effects that the right type of exercise can have on osteopenia. Exercise plays a vital role in managing osteopenia by helping to increase bone density and overall bone health.
The best exercises for osteopenia are weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening (or resistance) training. These types of exercises put stress on the bones, which in turn stimulates bone growth and helps to maintain or increase bone density.
Here are exercises and ideas to implement for Mum or Dad:
- Walking: walking is one of the most accessible and effective weight-bearing exercises. It’s low impact and can be adapted to various fitness levels. Hiking on uneven terrain adds an extra challenge and helps build muscle and increase bone density.
- Dancing: dancing can be a fun way to improve balance and strengthen bones.
- Exercise bike: Stationary bikes can be a great way to encourage the legs to move through the full range of motion in a low-impact setting.
- Exercise classes: Aerobics classes, falls prevention classes, hydrotherapy/aqua classes, Tai Chi, Yoga/Pilates are all great forms of weight-bearing exercises with the added benefit of socialising with others.
- Resistance bands: Easily adaptable to be used for both upper and lower body. Low cost and easily accessible.
- Weightlifting: Lifting weights or using weight machines (e.g. leg press machine) can increase muscle mass and bone density. Start with light weights and gradually increase the resistance.
- Bodyweight exercises: Sometimes you don’t need any equipment at all. You can use your body weight to do exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups to effectively build muscle and support bone health.
- Gardening: Activities like digging, weeding, and planting involve weight-bearing movements that can help improve bone density.
- Carrying groceries: Carrying grocery bags and other moderately heavy objects around the home can serve as a functional weight-bearing exercise.
Remember to start any new exercise program gradually, especially if Mum or Dad hasn’t been physically active.
Consult with a healthcare provider such as a GP, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist before starting a new exercise routine, especially if your Mum or Dad has underlying health conditions or concerns related to osteopenia.
Incorporating a variety of these exercises into one’s routine can provide the best overall benefits for bone health. Mum or Dad can take control of their bone health by consulting with the right healthcare provider, making lifestyle changes, and, if necessary, considering medication options.
It’s crucial for them to understand that with proper care and attention, they can maintain and improve their bone density, reducing the risk of fractures and enjoying a better quality of life as they age. Encourage them to take action today and prioritise their bone health for a brighter and healthier tomorrow!
At The Physio Co (TPC), we strive to make a meaningful difference by helping to improve the overall well-being of Australia’s seniors. If you’d like more guidance on how to help your elderly Mum or Dad live a more active, independent life, please get in touch! Our team of physiotherapists are here to help: call today for a no-obligation chat on 1300 797 793.
Article written by Tony Kim, TPC physiotherapist