Clinicians are also interested in bone quality — a complex characteristic that includes bone mineralization, microarchitecture, and the rate of bone turnover. So far, we have no way to noninvasively assess bone quality, but new imaging technologies are being developed that may allow clinicians to visualize the internal structure of bone and gain information that was once available only through biopsy.

5. Bone-preserving drugs

Postmenopausal woman who’ve had a fragility fracture or received a BMD T-score of −2.5 or worse should take an osteoporosis drug. Women with T-scores from −2.0 to −2.5 should consider drug therapy if they have a parent with a history of hip fracture or one or more other risk factors for osteoporosis.

Most approved osteoporosis drugs (see sidebar) are antiresorptive, that is, they slow resorption, the breakdown phase of bone turnover. Only one drug, parathyroid hormone (Forteo), is anabolic, meaning that it stimulates new bone formation. All medications have side effects, and dosing schedules vary from one to the other, so it’s important to explore all the options with your clinician. One adverse effect of bisphosphonates — death of jawbone tissue, usually after dental extractions or oral surgery — has occurred extremely rarely in women taking bisphosphonates for osteoporosis. It mostly has affected cancer patients, who take far higher bisphosphonate doses, usually intravenously.

Several osteoporosis drugs are under investigation, including the mineral strontium in the form of strontium ranelate, and denosumab, a monoclonal antibody that works by blocking osteoclasts, the cells that resorb bone.

Drugs approved for osteoporosis

Antiresorptive drugs (slow bone breakdown)

Bisphosphonates (prevention and treatment)

  • alendronate (Fosamax); oral, daily or weekly
  • risedronate (Actonel); oral, daily or weekly
  • ibandronate (Boniva); oral, monthly, or intravenous every three months

Bisphosphonates (treatment only)

  • zoledronic acid (Reclast); intravenous once a year

Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) (prevention and treatment)

  • raloxifene (Evista); oral, daily

Hormone therapy (prevention only)*

  • various agents (Premarin, Prempro, Estrace, Estraderm, Climara, Menostar, Femring, Estring**); oral, transdermal, vaginal

Other (treatment only)

  • calcitonin (Miacalcin); injection or nasal spray

Anabolic drugs (stimulate new bone formation)

Parathyroid hormone (treatment only)

  • teriparatide (Forteo); self-injection once a day for up to 18 months

*Only for prevention in postmenopausal women at significant risk for osteoporosis after non-estrogen drugs have been considered. No longer a first-line therapy.

**In a two-year study reported in Maturitas (Aug. 20, 2007), use of an estradiol-releasing vaginal ring produced a small but significant improvement in bone mineral density of the hip and lumbar spine.

6. Depression connection

Since the mid-1990s, researchers have investigated links between depression and bone loss. In 1996, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that women with a history of major depression had lower bone density at the hip and spine and higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone associated with bone loss. Since then, many studies have found a similar relationship. Research has also linked selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants with fractures, but cause and effect has not been established. It may be a long time before these connections are fully elucidated. In the meantime, women being treated for depression may want to talk to their clinicians about a BMD test.

7. Weight and weight loss

Weighing less than 127 pounds or having a body mass index under 21 is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Regardless of your body mass index, if you lose weight during the menopausal transition (late perimenopause and the first few years after menopause), you’re more likely to lose bone. Avoid ultra-low-calorie diets and diets that eliminate whole food groups. Be aware that bone loss accelerates during the menopausal transition, so if you’re trying to lose weight at that time, you may need to boost your calcium and vitamin D intake and bone-strengthening workouts.

8. Avoiding falls

Falling is one of the leading causes of fractures, especially among older women and those with low BMDs. Clear floors of anything that could trip you, including loose cords, stools, pillows, throw rugs, and magazines. Make sure stairways, halls, and entrances are well lit; install night-lights to help you see your way to the bathroom. Add grab bars to your tub or shower; make sure stairways have sturdy handrails. Don’t walk around in socks. Limit your alcohol intake. Have your vision and hearing checked regularly. If you take tranquilizers, sleeping pills, or any other medications that could impair your balance, talk to your clinician about reducing or eliminating them.

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