Healthy lifestyle which must go right to the bone; Diet and exercise can help to reduce a woman's risk of developing osteoporosis. Cate Wilson and Mel Hunter investigate.
Half of women over the age of 60 are affected by osteoporosis - more than the number who suffer from heart disease, strokes and diabetes and arthritis.
Although our genes determine the potential height and strength of our skeleton, lifestyle factors can influence the amount of bone a person invests in their 'bone bank' during their youth - and how much they save in later life.
The condition tends to affect older women as it is caused by a fall in bone mass. This process is speeded up in menopausal women because of the loss of oestrogen, the female hormone which keeps bones healthy.
But far from being an inevitable part of getting old, medical evidence shows that low bone density is almost entirely preventable through diet.
American doctor George Kessler, author of The Bone Density Diet, claims proper diet and exercise can reduce a woman's risk of developing osteoporosis by 100 per cent, slowing down the rate at which bone density is lost.
Throughout a person's lifetime, bones constantly renew themselves and ageing or damaged bone cells are replaced by new ones. But from the age of 30, the process of cell renewal slows down, so bones become weaker. Although both men and women lose around one per cent of bone cells - or bone density - a year, it is the dramatic loss in middle-aged women which is of most concern.
Although lack of oestrogen is the main reason, it is not the only factor. Severe weight loss, some forms of steroid medication and a diet lacking in dairy products can all reduce oestrogen production and mean an early menopause. Dr Kessler's claims are mirrored by the recommendations of the National Osteoporosis Society. Although most people are aware that calcium-rich foods such as fortified milk, cheese and yoghurt are good for bone health, they are less aware of the negative effects of foods such as fizzy drinks, coffee and even chicken.
Dr Kessler says: 'Because the bone-making process is so complex, many other nutrients besides calcium are necessary for a lifetime of strong bones.
'For example, osteoporosis is very rare in Asia, yet Asians consume very little dairy. They get their calcium from leafy greens and soybeans instead.'
Nutrients which are beneficial for bones include vitamin D found in dairy products, fish and egg yolks; magnesium, which is contained in green vegetables, brown rice and nuts, and boron which is present in honey, seeds and non-citrus fruits.
In general, vegetarian and vegan diets are better for bone health than meat-rich alternatives which tend to be high in protein. Protein, especially the kind found in meat and poultry, draws calcium out of the bones during the digestive process, causing them to weaken.
Other bone unfriendly foods include fizzy drinks, carbohydrates and alcohol. These foods are broken down into sugar by the body, causing levels of insulin to rise and releasing stressor hormones, which wreak havoc with the bone cell renewal process.
Dr Kessler says: 'Try checking your favourite cookbooks for some new recipes that are good for your bones and test them out. If you don't like a particular food, plan a reasonable substitute.
'But remember the diet is only half the battle. Good nutrition must be paired with regular exercise to make and keep your bones healthy.'
For more information about osteoporosis and how to use diet and exercise to prevent it, contact the National Osteoporosis Society's helpline on 01761 472721, or contact the website on www.nos.org.uk
HOW TO EAT MORE CALCIUM:
Breakfast cereals are an easy calcium rich start to the day, especially when combined with milk.
Snack on nuts or dried fruit instead of crisps or sweets.
Some mineral waters are a useful source of calcium, and an alternative to fizzy drinks.
Ice cream is not all bad - it makes a calcium-rich desert.