Those scary osteoporosis statistics – are they for real?

Many of the clients we see at the Center for Better Bones come to us because they’re scared — especially the women. They’ve been told that they’re at high risk for bone loss, and they fear that they will become “one out of every two women … over 50 [who] will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime.” These women picture themselves with a broken hip, wheelchair-bound, or bed-ridden for weeks and months, unable to walk or drive or even care for themselves. I talk to women who are afraid to do even simple tasks like lifting groceries or walking down a flight of stairs for fear of fracture. I don’t blame them — who wouldn’t be frightened by the idea that debilitation and loss of independence are just a coin-toss away?

In fact, these statistics that sound so scary leave out a lot of information that we all need to know if we’re to get an accurate sense of how likely such an injury really is.

I took some time recently to look at the three statistics that are batted around most often:

1. One out of two women over 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture in her lifetime.

2. In women ages 50 to 59, 58% have low bone mass, and this percentage increases as we age.

3. Osteoporosis causes 1.5 million fractures every year in the US.

All of these figures are superficially true — but when you look at what the data really tell us, they’re pretty meaningless for determining what an individual person’s fracture risk might be. Does every second or even third woman in her 50’s land in the hospital with a broken hip or other serious osteoporotic fracture? Of course not. Do more than half of all women in their 50s have low bone mass? Well, that depends on what you consider to be “low,” doesn’t it? And does osteoporosis truly cause 1.5 million fractures? Possibly… but now ask whether those fractures are debilitating, or painful, or even noticeable to most people, and you’ll probably find that the majority are not.

I’ve spelled out the reality behind these statistics in a new article I hope to post on the site soon [update: the article is now posted here]. In the meantime, I hope that you take these (and other) scary statistics with a huge grain of salt and try to get a realistic sense of what your risk factors are, and then see what you can do to reduce your risk. We’ve been doing that at the Center for Better Bones without drugs for over 25 years. We take the position that statistics aren’t very useful when it comes to the health of an individual person — everyone is unique, and the risk factors that will (or won’t!) affect their bone health have to be taken case by case.

 

References:

National Institutes of Health. 2007. Fact sheet. Osteoporosis. URL (PDF): http://www.nih.gov/about/researchresultsforthepublic/Osteoporosis.pdf (accessed 10.12.2009).

International Osteoporosis Foundation. [No date of publication listed.] Facts and statistics about osteoporosis and its impact. URL: http://www.iofbonehealth.org/facts-and-statistics.html (accessed 10.12.2009).

 


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