Boosting Bone Health

Bone health is considered by many to be an issue that primarily affects older individuals, but it is wrong to assume that bone health is not just as important for the young. A CNN report states that 70% of American children are not getting enough vitamin D, a necessary building block for healthy bones, and osteoporosis — a disease that occurs when bones become porous, fragile, and prone to breaks — is what the International Osteoporosis Foundation calls “a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences.”

“Aging doesn’t begin at a particular age,” says Dr. Andrew Scharlach, a professor of aging at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare. “It accumulates throughout our lives.” In fact, many other misconceptions about bone health exist, and you may be surprised to find out that simply drinking copious amounts of milk daily is not enough to maintain healthy bones.

Bone health and calcium levels have been linked for years. While dairy is the most common dietary source of calcium, some individuals cannot consume dairy. Some alternatives suggested by the organization American Bone Health for those who are lactose-intolerant include tofu, which is rich in calcium sulfate; sardines; almonds; cabbage; and broccoli.

The suggested amount of calcium is about 1000 to 1200 milligrams per day. However, it is important to note that the body can only absorb 500 milligrams of calcium in a single dose. For example, if you drink three cups of milk, you will take in about 1200 milligrams but the body will only absorb 500 milligrams, leaving the rest to waste.

In addition, Dr. Scharlach explains that consuming high levels of calcium, though possible, can have other unintended effects. In fact, there are complications with just maxing out one’s calcium intake. “One of the challenges … is that calcium deposits that are beneficial can have a negative effect on cardiovascular functions on people,” said Dr. Scharlach. Thus, despite the widely accepted knowledge that calcium is vital to bone health, it is important to turn to a medical professional for personalized and specific information for your own nutritional needs.

Another crucial nutrient for bone health is vitamin D. The human body absorbs vitamin D from the sun, but it is important to note that there are a lot of variables in absorbing sunlight. For instance, covering yourself in a scarf, coat, and beanie in the wintertime means there is little skin uncovered that can absorb sunlight. In addition, wearing sunscreen or staying indoors will decrease the amount of vitamin D one can absorb. Therefore, it is beneficial to consume foods that are high in vitamin D or to take vitamin D3 or D2 supplements.

From your early teen years to your 20s, worrying about bone health may not seem like a priority. However, early care of your bones will decrease the chances of severe bone complications like osteoporosis or osteoarthritis later on.

Surprisingly, bone functionality is short-lived. Under the age of 20, bone-building cells called osteoblasts work harder than bone-absorbing cells called osteoclasts. Between the ages of 20 and 40, osteoblasts and osteoclasts work in equilibrium. After the age of 40, osteoclasts become more active than osteoblasts, which increases the risk of bone damage.

Age is not the only factor in degenerative bone health. Functionality, or how well a bone is performing its task, and vulnerability change, or how bone strength changes with time “is a product of what is going inside one’s body and what is going on in the environment. It is a combination of having reduced bone density, which can make you more susceptible to falls,” says Dr. Scharlach. Though decreased bone density does increase the risk of falls, the environment you inhabit and whether it is fall-proof and fall-prone also influences your risk of falls.

How else can you improve and protect your bone health besides changing your diet, taking nutrient supplements, and making your environment fall-proof? One option is to engage in specific physical activities. For example, swimming, though useful for cardiovascular training, does relatively little for improving bone health. In contrast, weight-bearing exercises can help improve bone strength, especially when done moderately and consistently.

“In an environment where people are sitting a lot and also where their nutritionists aren’t good, you end up with weaker muscles and bones,” Dr. Scharlach says. This can easily be related to university students who often find themselves seated at desks for long hours at a time.

For students, maintaining proper posture during long lectures, taking walks around campus during study breaks from Moffitt Library, and regulating calcium and vitamin D consumption are all methods to keep bones healthy. Of course, as always, asking your physician questions can offer more specific suggestions regarding ways to further improve your bone health.