By Michael Lasalandra - Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent

Bone loss and fractures in old age aren’t inevitable. Seniors can take a number of actions designed to keep their bones healthy, including eating the right foods, taking supplements and engaging in weight-bearing exercise.

“Science is showing us that everything our mothers told us is true,” says Marian Hannan, D.Sc., M.P.H., a scientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a leading researcher who has conducted studies about the impact of nutrition on bone health.

“We should eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “And our diets should include sufficient amounts of protein and vitamins. There are things that people can do at any age that have a positive impact on bone health, either slowing bone loss or reversing it.”

Most importantly, seniors should eat a sufficient amount of protein, Ms. Hannan says. For most, that is 80 grams a day — an egg and a six-ounce piece of meat, fish or poultry, for example. While a very large amount of protein can cause a short-term loss of calcium, this situation is rare in older adults. In fact, typically most seniors eat too little protein, not too much, she says. There have been several large studies in older adults showing that higher protein intake, within the amounts typically consumed by older adults, is good for bone health.

Getting a sufficient amount of Vitamin C is also critical, according to Ms. Hannan. A recent study she presented at the scientific meeting of the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research showed that seniors who had high intakes of Vitamin C, either through dietary intakes and/or supplements, reduced their risk of fractures by 50 percent.

“It turns out Vitamin C is not only important for maintaining bone mass but also for minimizing the risk of hip fracture,” she says.

Also critical to bone health is getting a sufficient amount of calcium and Vitamin D in the diet, Ms. Hannan says.

“We’ve known since the 20th Century that calcium and Vitamin D are essential,” she notes. “The first line of defense when you have a bone fracture is to give calcium and Vitamin D.”

The recommended amounts are 1200 mg of calcium and 400 IU of Vitamin D per day. Vitamin D supplements are particularly important in the northeast in the winter, when sun exposure is minimal. Vitamin D helps the body absorb enough of the calcium it needs to keep the bones healthy.

Bone density testing is also a good idea, particularly for those with a family history, especially a maternal family history, of fractures, she says. The test takes only a few minutes and examines density of the bones at the hips and spine in particular.

Besides nutrition, exercise is also important for overall health and for healthy bones. The best type of exercise for bones is weight-bearing exercise, which forces you to work against gravity. These are exercises in which the feet and legs bear your weight.

“Physical activity, whether walking or very intense exercise, is quite important for bone health,” Ms. Hannan says. “Just as your muscles respond to exercise, so does your skeleton. Weight-bearing exercise (walking, jogging, lifting weights, dancing, sports and others) causes bone to become stronger and often more dense. Dense, strong bone is less likely to fracture. Research has shown that even individuals in their 90s and older can do resistance training with weights to improve physical function. Also, for those people who are unable to do high-impact exercises, there are many low-impact, weight-bearing exercises that aid bone health and are safe.”

Ms. Hannan notes that people should check with their doctors before beginning a new exercise program, especially people with heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure. If an older person is at high risk of having a fracture, she or he can work with a physical therapist to develop a safe exercise program, she adds.

Muscle mass also may play a role in bone health, Ms. Hannan says. “There is a loss of muscle mass as we age,” she says. “Just as nutrition influences bone it also influences muscle mass. We are looking at whether loss of muscle mass is a component that leads people to fall and fracture bones. It may be that their muscles can’t support them.”

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

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