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  • Banishing Brittle Bones

  • If you don't want to join the 40,000 Rhode Islanders who suffer from osteoporosis, bone up on the facts. Eighty percent of osteoporosis sufferers are older women, who lose bone mass rapidly after menopause. But while osteoporosis is associated with aging, it is not destiny.

    There's a simple, painless way to find out how your bones stack up. "Women should have a bone density test at the time of menopause to measure bone loss or weakening," advises Douglas Kiel, MD, co-director of the osteoporosis research unit at Rhode Island Hospital. Medicare now covers the cost.

    Lifestyle improvements can prevent or halt bone loss. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, help the body build bone. Calcium and vitamin D are crucial building blocks. "If you are 50 to 65 years old, 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day is recommended; if you are over 65, take 1,500 milligrams," says Kiel, "but supplements and antacids containing calcium are not all created equal. To find out whether your brand measures up, put it in a glass and cover it with vinegar. If it hasn't dissolved in a half-hour, it won't dissolve in your stomach either."

    Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. Ten minutes of sunlight every day on hands and face provide an adequate amount, but New Englanders don't usually get enough from this natural source. The recommended daily dose is 200-400 IUs between ages 50 and 65; 600 IUs over 65. Salt, caffeine and alcohol interfere with calcium levels, so it's wise to cut back on salty foods, and limit yourself to two cups of coffee and no more than one glass of alcohol a day.

    Medicine is waging war against osteoporosis on several fronts. Four recently approved drugs slow the rate of bone loss and a new generation of bone density machines will soon make scanning less expensive and more accessible. Studies are also being conducted on several revolutionary drugs that increase the rate at which the body makes bone tissue. If you'd like more information, call Rhode Island Hospital's osteoporosis research unit at (401) 444-4715.

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