No matter how strong and healthy you may look on the outside, your bones may be showing signs of weakness and age on the inside. Women over age 50 are most susceptible to low bone mass, or osteoporosis, since levels of bone-protective estrogen begin to decline at that age. Yet, many women don’t learn they have osteoporosis until they suffer a bone fracture. As a result, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends that all postmenopausal women over age 65 get a bone-density test.
Fortunately, research is uncovering new ways to combat this debilitating disease. Combined with weight-bearing exercises and adequate calcium and vitamin D intake, the following medications have been shown to reduce the risk of bone fractures, slow bone loss and, in some cases, repair and restore bone mass and strength:
- Bisphosphanates include alendronate (brand name Fosamax) and risedronate (brand name Actonel), taken daily or weekly. One downside is that they must be taken first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, after which you can’t sit or lie down for 30 minutes. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this spring approved a new drug, ibandronate (Boniva). While you must remain upright for 60 minutes after taking the medication, you only need to take Boniva once a month.
- Raloxifene (brand name Evista) mimics estrogen’s positive effect—preventing bone loss—and is taken in pill form once a day. It’s specifically been shown to reduce spine fractures.
- Calcitonin (brand names Miacalcin and Calcimar) reduces bone breakdown and may prevent spine fractures. It’s approved for treating osteoporosis in women at least five years beyond menopause and is administered through injection or nasal spray.
In some cases, osteoporosis may be treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). But because HRT may increase risk for breast cancer, heart attack and stroke, the FDA recommends using low-dose HRT only after other treatments have proven ineffective.
Just as you don’t always feel the symptoms of osteoporosis in its early stages, you may not feel the effectiveness of your medication. If you’re not sure whether your treatment is working—or if you are experiencing side effects—talk to your doctor before stopping your medication. He or she can discuss its effectiveness and recommend treatment alternatives, if necessary.