Betty, 62, is a good inch shorter than she used to be. Since losing height isn’t a normal sign of aging, her doctor ordered a bone density scan, a painless procedure used to assess bone strength and diagnose osteoporosis, or fragile, brittle bones.
Betty was lucky. Unlike many Americans who learn they have osteoporosis after breaking a bone, Betty found out she had low bone density in time to prevent a potentially debilitating fracture.
It took Betty about 10 minutes to get her bone density measured using the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) test, which measures bone mass at the hip, spine and wrist, the areas where fractures are most common. Smaller, portable machines can measure bone mass in peripheral body parts like the finger, wrist or heel but can’t determine osteoporosis risk as accurately as those that measure hip or spine bone mass. The results, however, can signal the need for further testing.
During her exam, Betty, still clothed, lay on a padded platform. A mechanical arm emitting low radiation (about one-tenth that of a chest X-ray) passed over her body. A computer evaluation supplied Betty’s doctor with a T-score, a number comparing Betty’s bone density to optimal bone density for people her age. Her T-score measurement of –2.5 showed that Betty had osteoporosis.
Betty’s doctor prescribed medication to help rebuild Betty’s bones and told her how she could strengthen her bones with diet, supplements and exercise. After her most recent DEXA scan, Betty was relieved to learn that her bone density had improved. She’ll continue to have the test performed to learn whether her bone-building treatment is working.
A U.S. government–appointed task force recommends a bone density test for women ages 65 and older or ages 60 to 64 who are at increased risk of osteoporosis. Men can develop osteoporosis, particularly after age 65, but they have a lower risk of osteoporosis than women. Most doctors don’t routinely advise bone density screenings for male patients, but men should talk with their healthcare providers if they notice osteoporosis warning signs such as height loss or an easily broken bone or have other risk factors.
Risk factors for both men and women include a family history of the disease, a small body frame, inadequate calcium intake, smoking and regular use of certain medications (such as antacids and thyroid drugs). Talk to your doctor about your own risks.