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Learning About Low Bone Density

What is low bone density?

Low bone density (sometimes called osteopenia) is a decrease in thickness, or density, in bones. That means the bones become thinner and weaker. It is more common in women than in men.

It's important to know that low bone density is not a disease. It can happen normally with aging. Having low bone density means that there is a greater risk that you may get osteoporosis. It also means that you are more likely to break a bone than someone who does not have low bone density. But not everyone with low bone density gets osteoporosis or breaks a bone.

Low bone density doesn't cause any symptoms. It's usually found with a type of X-ray called a bone density test. Your bone density result (T-score) is below normal if it has a minus sign in front of it.

What increases your risk for low bone density?

Things that increase your risk include:

  • Getting older.
  • Having a family history of osteoporosis.
  • Being thin.
  • Having certain ancestry (such as being of European or Asian descent).
  • Getting too little physical activity.
  • Smoking.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Using certain medicines such as steroids.

How can you prevent osteoporosis?

There are things you can do to help prevent osteoporosis. Certain lifestyle changes will help slow the loss of bone density.

  • Eat food that has plenty of calcium and vitamin D. Yogurt, cheese, milk, and dark green vegetables are high in calcium. Eggs, fatty fish, cereal, and fortified milk have vitamin D.
  • Ask your doctor if you need to take a calcium plus vitamin D supplement. Although you can get enough calcium in your diet, it is very hard to get enough vitamin D in your diet.
  • Get regular exercise.
    • Do 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise on most days of the week. Walking, jogging, stair climbing, and dancing are good choices.
    • Do resistance exercises with weights or elastic bands 2 or 3 days a week.
    • Check with your doctor before starting any new exercises.
  • If you drink alcohol, try to drink less. Your risk of harm from alcohol is low if you have 2 drinks or less per week, moderate if you have 3 to 6 drinks per week, and high if you have 7 or more drinks per week.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make bones thin faster. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.

Prescription medicines are available for treating low bone density. But these are more often used to treat osteoporosis.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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