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Groups Lead Fight Against Osteoporosis

Health advocates and doctors seek to increase awareness of debilitating bone disease.

Doctors and advocacy groups are looking to combat the all-too-common yet severe declines in the quality of life in seniors as they promote preventative measures in the fight against osteoporosis as part of Osteoporosis Awareness Month.

"Osteoporosis is a silent illness," said Dr. Phillip Kempf, a rheumatologist at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. "Most of the time people won't know that they have it unless they're active with their doctors in monitoring it."

According to Washington, D.C.-based National Osteoporosis Foundation figures, an estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, a disease which causes the bones to lose mass and therefore become brittle and more easily broken. Of those patients, an estimated 80 percent are women.

Although the majority of the patients with osteoporosis are seniors, it can happen at any age, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation Web site.

"It's a monumental problem where more than 50 percent of Caucasian women will have some type of osteoporotic fracture at some time in their lives," Kempf said.

Increased risk factors for developing osteoporosis include being a post-menopausal Caucasian woman; having a family history of the disease; taking thyroid, anti-convulsant or anti-seizure medication regularly and an insufficient daily intake of calcium and vitamin D, Kempf said.

OSTEOPOROTIC FRACTURES can have devastating, irreversible effects to patients of the disease, according to Dr. Felicia Cosman, the clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

"What happens is that you can go a long period of time with osteoporosis and not know it and eventually the bones will become so weak that they crack or break as a result of something simple," Cosman said. "Bumping into furniture could break a rib."

"The worst break that can happen is a hip fracture," she said, adding that 15 to 20 percent of patients who fracture a hip bone die within a year of the incident while another 30 percent will have to live under constant care in a nursing home. "It's devastating because it can kill you, but it can also severely limit your quality of life."

Although more common in women, osteoporosis can also affect men, according to Kempf.

"For every three or four women, a man will develop osteoporosis," Kempf said. "Probably the most publicly under-recognized instances of a man having osteoporosis was in Pope John Paul II."

The pope, Kempf noted, was "hunched over" in his later years, a common symptom of osteoporosis in which "micro-fractures" of the spine cause a curved shape and a slouched posture to develop.

WHILE POTENTIALLY debilitating, osteoporosis is by no means a disease that cannot be combated, according to Woody McMahon, a personal trainer at Herndon-based Sequoia Health & Fitness Inc.

Working to increase awareness of osteoporosis through a free, interactive osteoporosis prevention and support group that he will launch next month, McMahon hopes that he can limit the effects of the disease.

"Osteoporosis is a serious problem," McMahon said, "but it's also a very, very preventable problem."

McMahon, who contacted the National Osteoporosis Foundation this month to pitch the idea of starting the group, said that preventing osteoporosis is all about developing a healthy lifestyle.

"All the problems that people can have with osteoporosis can be avoided ... if you eat better, are more physically active and are more educated about" the effects of the disease, he said. "You can eliminate osteoporosis, help yourself stay fit and have a big change in your overall quality of life."

PEOPLE WHO ARE at an increased-risk for developing osteoporosis should closely monitor their intake of calcium and vitamin D to ensure that they are getting enough, exercise regularly and have a physician perform regular bone density tests, according to Cosman.

A patient diagnosed with osteoporosis will not necessarily have to make changes to his or her lifestyle if they address the disease appropriately, she added.

"If you follow the appropriate measures and take your medication properly, you can dramatically decrease your risk" of an osteoporatic fracture, Cosman said. "The key is to do everything to optimize the factors that you need to and eliminate the risk so you can keep on with a normal quality of life well into old age."