Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterSummer 2011

Women Over 65: Time for a Bone Density Test

When one 80-year-old woman finally heeded her doctor's advice and got a bone density test, she was surprised by the results.

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"I had lost one and a quarter inches in height!" she says. "Because I hadn't suffered any symptoms, I didn't even know I had osteoporosis."

Your doctor has likely talked to you about keeping your bones strong and lowering your risk of broken bones. As we get older we are all at increased risk for osteoporosis, a condition where our bones become brittle and fragile, leading to a higher risk of fractures. Until recently, the disease wasn't usually detected until a hip or vertebra broke. Today, however, a bone density test called a DEXA scan makes it possible to identify osteoporosis early and take steps to prevent problems.

"We recommend that all women over age 65 be tested, and discuss this as part of our senior well visits," says Dr. Handley. "We may suggest it sooner if a patient has increased risk factors or is taking certain medications. Routine testing is not recommended for men."

Your risk of developing osteoporosis is greater if you smoke, weigh less than 130 pounds, are a postmenopausal woman, have a parent who has had a hip fracture, take certain medications such as prednisone or some seizure medicines, or have diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. Your risk also climbs if you don't walk regularly, or can't rise from a chair without using your arms.

If the bone density test shows you have osteoporosis, your doctor may prescribe medications or supplements to help strengthen your bones. However, prevention is still best.

"A decrease in bone density is a common result of aging, but it is possible to slow its progress and minimize its severity through prevention," says Dr. Handley. "It's not too late for someone in their 70s or 80s to benefit from doing as much weight-bearing and balance-training exercise as possible, and taking the recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D — 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day from diet plus supplements, and 800 to 1,000 international units of vitamin D."

Other tips include stopping smoking and avoiding medications that make you more likely to fall and fracture bones, such as narcotic pain medications and sleep medication.

Scheduling a Test

If you have any questions about whether you need a test, you don't have to wait until your next wellness visit. "Talk with your doctor at any time," says Dr. Handley. "If you get health care at Group Health Medical Centers, you can send a secure e-mail and ask them to order a test for you." If you're not sure you've had a test, call your doctor's office.

For many women, this is a once-in-a-lifetime test. If tests show that bone density is low, but no osteoporosis is found, re-testing may be recommended to track treatment progress in two to five years.

You will need a referral from your personal physician to get a DEXA bone density scan. Group Health members can get tested at Group Health Medical Centers clinics in Olympia, Tacoma, the Capitol Hill Campus in Seattle, Silverdale, and Bellevue. Or you can talk to Customer Service about a testing location near you that belongs to your health plan network.

For more information about osteoporosis, talk with your doctor or contact our Resource Line.

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