Are You Aging Too Fast?

Odds are you look and feel younger than your mother did at the same age. But you could probably be doing even better

by Meryl Davids Landau
face of woman on hourglass body illustration image
Photograph: The Heads of State

A) On average, one to two drinks a day

B) Either no alcohol or three or more drinks a day

Your bones seem solid, but they are actually in a constant state of flux during which old minerals are removed and new ones added. If your bones lose more matter than they gain, they can become brittle and fracture easily—a situation that accelerates after menopause, when your body’s production of estrogen drastically declines. Experts estimate that about half of non-Hispanic Caucasian and Asian women over 50 have low bone density; a fifth suffer from the serious bone thinning called osteoporosis. According to a small study published this year in Menopause, moderate drinking improves your bones’ ability to rebuild. On the other hand, too much alcohol—three or more drinks a day—seems to damage the remodeling process.

2. How much height have you lost since you were 25?

A) None, or less than two inches

B) Two or more inches

A study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that older women who reported shrinking two or more inches in stature were nearly 50 percent more likely than others to fracture their hips as they aged. One possible reason for this association is that height loss can result from undiagnosed, silent fractures in the spine, indicating that skeletal bones are weak, says lead author Teresa A. Hillier, MD, an endocrinologist and senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Northwest in Portland, Oregon.

3. How does the flab in your abdomen feel?

A) Soft and squishy; I can easily pinch it with my fingers

B) Hard to the touch, buried deep below the skin

For years, doctors assumed that obese women had extra protection from osteoporosis, because the added pounds might make bones stronger. However, a Harvard Medical School study of overweight women found that those with high levels of deep abdominal (or visceral) fat had less dense bones than those whose fat was just below the skin (the pinchable, subcutaneous fat). This is likely because visceral fat affects the body’s hormones, and hormones influence bone breakdown and rebuilding, says study author Miriam A. Bredella, MD, associate professor of radiology. 

4. As an adult, have you broken your wrist, ankle or other bones after tripping?

A) No

B) Yes

Along with your T-score (a measure of bone density provided by a bone scan), a previous history of broken bones is a common predictor of hip and other fractures later in life. Your experience factors into an algorithm developed by the World Health Organization that estimates your odds of breaking a bone within the next 10 years. While this formula, called FRAX, is most accurate if you have taken a bone-density test and know your T-score, you can still estimate your risk level (at shef.ac.uk/FRAX) without that number. 

TOTAL B’s: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.

Your Action Plan

First, boost your intake of calcium so there’s more available for your bones to use. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 1,000 mg per day of total calcium for women under 50 and 1,200 for those 50 and older. Second, stimulate your bones’ uptake of that calcium by doing at least two 30- to 45-minute sessions of strength training each week. In the classic 1994 study proving the benefits of this regimen, postmenopausal women who worked out for a year gained 1 percent of bone mass, while nonexercisers lost 2 percent, notes Wayne Westcott, PhD, director of exercise science at Quincy College in Massachusetts.

Additional bone boosters:

First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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