Osteoporosis typically affects seniors, placing them at much greater risk of fractures. But there’s another condition called osteopenia, which can happen at virtually any age.
Traditionally considered a woman’s disease, men can get it, too.
In fact, a new study has revealed that more middle-aged men than women may have osteopenia, a condition that causes weakened bones that can eventually lead to osteoporosis.
In the study, researchers analyzed bone mineral density in the necks and hips of 173 adult men and women in early middle age.
Participants were examined by X-ray to determine if they showed signs of low bone density, indicating osteopenia.
They also completed a questionnaire that assessed other related risk factors associated with osteoporosis and osteopenia, including calcium intake and how many hours per week they exercised.
Among the study participants, researchers found that 23 men (28 percent) and 24 women (26 percent) showed significant signs of osteopenia.
“Osteopenia marks below-normal levels of bone mineral in bone tissue, also known as bone mineral density, which means weaker bones,” Dr. Kanika Monga, a rheumatology fellow with McGovern Medical School at UT Health and UT Physicians in Houston, told Healthline.
“Osteoporosis is also marked by below-normal levels of bone mineral density, but to a more severe extent that will predispose patients to fractures,” she added. “Osteopenia is considered pre-osteoporosis or a precursor to osteoporosis.”
Risk factors for osteopenia
According to Monga, there are risk factors we can change to reduce our risk.
“Some modifiable risk factors for osteopenia include low calcium intake, cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol intake, lack of weight-bearing exercise, and a lack of sunlight exposure,” she said.
Monga said that some medications can also affect bone health.
“Prolonged use of certain medications like steroids can also be a risk factor for developing osteopenia,” she said. “A lot of medical conditions are also associated with osteoporosis. These include leukemia, celiac disease, problems with kidney function, and rheumatoid arthritis.”
She emphasized that osteopenia doesn’t have to lead to osteoporosis, and with treatment the prognosis can be favorable.
“Osteopenia can be treated with a multi-modal approach, which is best discussed with your doctor,” Monga said. “The most common approach involves understanding the predisposing risk factors, exercise, and improved nutrition. In some cases, medications are used, but those cases tend to be patients with unmodifiable risk factors. This is decided on an individual case basis.”
The cause in men?
Christopher Parker, DO, a rheumatology specialist in Austin, Texas, told Healthline there are important differences between men and women when it comes to osteopenia.
“For a man, low testosterone is a risk factor, while for a woman it’s low estrogen,” Parker said.
But he emphasized that “gender doesn’t matter when it comes to things like chronic steroid use or other medications that impair bone health. It’s the same for tobacco and other toxins, including alcohol in excess, poor nutrition, and lack of weight-bearing exercise.”
Parker said there are health conditions that can significantly impact bone health regardless of gender.
“There are many diseases or disorders that are not gender-specific which also affect bone health, such as Cushing’s disease, hyperparathyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and others,” he noted.
Monga said men need to be aware that they’re at risk.
“Lack of awareness is a major contributor to bone health deteriorating. Most people are under the impression that osteoporosis and osteopenia can only occur in women, and that’s not true,” she said.
“Knowing about osteopenia can definitely help because it’s reversible,” Monga added. “Intervention with weight-bearing exercises and improved nutrition may help.”
Individually tailored treatments
Parker said there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating osteopenia.
“A man with osteopenia shouldn’t be treated the same as any other man or a woman,” he said. “Each person should be considered individually. A man with osteopenia may also have rheumatoid arthritis or balance problems, and I would be much more worried about him than a woman who has osteopenia and neither of these problems.”
Parker added, “This is why a doctor has to listen to and examine a person, and not just look at the results of a bone density test.”
Maintaining overall health
Parker considers maintaining overall health an important strategy to good bone health.
“Good health is good bone health,” he said. “Proper nutrition, sufficient exercise, getting enough sleep, and stress control are essential.”
He recommends reviewing your medications to see if they can harm your bones.
He also suggests you get rid of certain hazards in your home.
“If you already have osteopenia or osteoporosis and are concerned about balance and falling, minimize that risk as best you can,” he said. “Consider physical therapy, night lights, and avoiding tripping hazards like throw rugs and electrical cords.”
The bottom line
New research finds that osteopenia, which experts consider “pre-osteoporosis,” is more prevalent in men than previously believed.
There are a number of possible reasons, including reduced male hormone levels, lack of exercise, and insufficient dietary calcium.
Experts say osteopenia is reversible. Early diagnosis and an individually tailored treatment plan designed by your doctor may prevent the condition from getting worse, and even improve bone health overall.