PALMER— Preventative health is often regarded by medical professionals as the key to overall health. As people age, preventive health gains even more importance and diseases like osteopenia and osteoporosis become more prevalent. The Valley has one of the highest senior populations in the states and those numbers only grow each year.

“Especially as we get older, we tend to progressively lose minerals from our bones so the longer the population is living, the more it comes up,” Dr. Paul Forman, of Solstice Family Care said.

Within the Imaging Department of Mat-Su Regional Medical Center is the dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) machine which scans and measures patients’ bone densities. MSRMC Imaging Director, Tosha Stewart said that this machine is used about 100 times per year and it’s there for a very specific purpose: to help diagnosis osteopenia or osteoporosis and to scan those diagnosed to check on their bones and evaluate their risks for fractures.

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“You lose that bone density and then your bones become brittle and frail and that’s when people will like, literally, if they fall they will break a hip or just a minor accident can break their bone,” Stewart said.

There is treatment available for osteo-patients. Forman said those at higher risks should be screened as early as possible. He said those who have taken steroids or other medicines like chemotherapy that cause bone depletion are at a higher risk. The elderly are also at a higher risk, particularly elderly women with small bone structures, he noted, citing the United States Preventive Service Task Force who recommends screening amongst all women over 65.

Forman explained the difference between osteopenia and osteoporosis, saying that they both cause mineral loss in the bones, which is called “demineralization” and osteoporosis is a more severe case, thus rendering patients highly vulnerable to fractures.

“It’s sort of like, the egg shell gets thinner,” Forman said.

Osteopenia is milder than osteoporosis, but it still means those who have it are still more fragile compared to those with normal bones, so they still need to be warry of fractures, according to Forman. He said that osteopenia is fairly common and osteoporosis is relatively common but less common than the former.

“If you are at a higher risk, you definitely should be screened earlier. The idea is that if we identify someone who has thinning bones before its very thin, there are some medicines and some lifestyle changes and calcium supplementation and things that can help prevent the bones from thinning further and resulting in a fracture. So ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment’ is true here,” Forman said.

Another emerging factor that drives osteopenia and osteoporosis comes from lack of exercise and poor diet. Like all matters of health and fighting disease, those are two of the top ways to better health- be it treatment or prevention, according to Forman.

“Weight bearing exercise probably does more for stimulating bone growth and keeping your bones healthy than any medicine or any other thing we can do. So the more sedentary our population is, the more problems we have,” Forman said.

Forman said that it’s fairly common for patients to diagnosed when it’s “too late,” meaning they found out after an injury.

“If it had been recognized, it could have possibly been prevented,” Forman said.

Both osteopenia and osteoporosis make bones more brittle, but they don’t cause patients chronic pain unless they have a co-occurring disease like arthritis, according to Forman. He said that most people don’t exhibit any symptoms until they sustain an injury. This could be a fracture resulting from a trip or stumble that would normally be brushed off by someone with atypical bones.

“The thinning of the bones themselves tends to not cause pain until the bone breaks. It’s the bone fracture that we’re really trying to prevent,” Forman said.

According to the official website, those with Medicare who meet one or more of these criteria are covered to have their bones scanned every two years (or more if medically necessary):

You’re a woman whose doctor determines you’re estrogen deficient and at risk for osteoporosis, based on your medical history and other findings.

Your X-rays show possible osteoporosis, osteopenia, or vertebral fractures.

You’re taking prednisone or steroid-type drugs or are planning to begin this treatment.

You’ve been diagnosed with primary hyperparathyroidism.

You’re being monitored to see if your osteoporosis drug therapy is working.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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