Boning up on Skeletal Health

Most of us give our bone health as much thought as we do our pensions. Sure, we know it’s something we’ll have to think about one day, but until then we’ll probably just file the whole issue away with sensible shoes (shudder) and boring bank statements (double shudder).

Unfortunately, the experts aren’t too down with this approach – and here’s why: the majority of our bone mass is laid down by our early 20s. After this time, the body will replace old bone, but the overall mass of the skeleton will never increase. In fact, it will gradually decrease with age – and for some more quickly than others, if a new study is anything to go by.

Canadian researchers measured the bone mineral density of 783 people with MS, and compared it with that of people without the disease. The results revealed that the MS group had significantly lower bone density than the control group, as well as a higher rate of osteoporosis (weak bones that are more prone to fracture). Gulp.

Vitamin D and bone health

So what is it about MS that can affect bone strength in this way? Well, for starters, though very different, the two diseases share similar risk factors. Like smoking, for example; not only does puffing away make you one and a half times more likely to develop MS, it’s also associated with an increased risk of brittle bones, and bone fracture.

And then there’s the vitamin D link. We know that low levels of the so-called sunshine vitamin are associated with an increased risk of developing MS. We also know that vitamin D plays a vital role in calcium absorption, a mineral that’s crucial to bone strength and development. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that low vitamin D levels could also increase your risk of osteoporosis, too. Talk about a double whammy.

MS, Disability and Osteoporosis

There’s also the fact that MS can affect muscle strength and mobility, not to mention energy levels, which can leave us less active. Since exercise is vital to bone strength (the pressure it puts on the bones, stimulates bone producing cells called osteoblasts, ), being less active could mean the musculoskeletal system isn’t getting the workout it needs. The Canadian study we mentioned earlier, for example, found disability to increase risk of osteoporosis.

If that wasn’t enough, certain medications commonly prescribed for MS can also cause possible bone issues. Long-term use of steroids, for example, can interfere with calcium absorption and bone regeneration, while some forms of anti-spasmodic drugs and even anti-depressants can also affect bone health. Of course all of these drugs can be invaluable for managing symptoms, so it’s a case of weighing up the pros and cons with your doctor.

Reducing your risk of osteoporosis

Whatever the link between MS and osteoporosis, there’s plenty you can do to reduce your own personal risk. A healthy balanced diet that provides plenty of the bone-building mineral calcium is a good place to start. Think dairy products such as milk (fun fact: there is more calcium in skimmed milk than full fat), yoghurt and cheese, as well as green vegetables such as kale, spinach, bok choy and broccoli. Salmon and sardines are also good sources.

Topping up your vitamin D levels also makes sense. Exposure to sunshine is the best source, as the skin makes the vitamin in response to UV radiation. Spending plenty of time outdoors will naturally boost your levels (experts recommend exposing skin for around 20 minutes a day without sunscreen, but not so you burn), while dietary sources include oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, as well as egg yolk and liver. If you’re someone who struggles to get outdoors, or you rarely bare your skin, a supplement can also be beneficial. Something to discuss with your doctor.

Weight-bearing exercise is also vital, whether it’s a daily stroll in the park, or a seriously sweaty circuits class – whatever your fitness level allows. Even if you’re in a wheelchair there are ways to build muscle and bone mass, so speak to your physiotherapist about devising an exercise plan.

Ultimately, investing in your bones makes good sense for the future whether you have MS or not. Sensible shoes might be an inevitable part of getting older, but brittle bones and fractures really don’t have to be.

Now that we have your skeleton sorted, it may be time to think about that pension…

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