When actress Sally Field was diagnosed with osteoporosis in 2005, it was a disappointing development.
'I had always eaten right, I had always exercised, and I had always taken calcium,' Field said last Thursday in Washington, D.C. 'I tried to be a good girl all the way down the line, but it was going to get me.'
Field was in town to talk to legislators at a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Society for Women's Health Research and the National Osteoporosis Foundation. The event took place during National Women's Health Week and National Osteoporosis Month, encouraging women to protect their bone health at all ages.
'Eighty percent of the 10 million Americans affected by osteoporosis are women,' said Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research. 'An additional 34 million Americans are at risk for this disease and, as our population ages, osteoporosis will only become a greater public health threat.'
Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become extremely porous, are subject to fracture, and heal slowly. It is about more than broken bones and hunchbacked old ladies. It can cost you your life.
'A hip fracture can kill you,' said Ethel Siris, M.D., president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. 'There is a 20 percent increased mortality in the year after a hip facture.'
For individuals who survive a hip fracture, their quality of life will likely never be the same.
'Most people, at least 50 percent, will need a cane or walker for the rest of their life,' said Laura Tosi, M.D., a Society for Women's Health Research board member.
Fortunately for Field, her doctor had been monitoring her bone health for several years leading up to her diagnosis because she was at heightened risk for osteoporosis. Field received a bone density test to establish a baseline and then follow up tests in later years to determine her rate of bone loss.
As a small-boned, thin Caucasian woman over the age of 50 with a family history of fractures as an adult, Field was at great risk. Although osteoporosis is most common in Caucasian and Asian women, African American and Hispanic women are also at significant risk for the disease.
Field's doctor let her know that she was losing bone at a very rapid rate and needed to start treatment immediately. The danger she faced became crystal clear a short time later while playing with her grandchildren.
'I had a five-year old on my back and a seven-year old in a wagon, pulling them up my steep driveway,' Field said. "I realized, 'I'm at risk. I may not make it up this steep driveway.'
Field's osteoporosis is now being treated with medication in addition to continuing exercise and a proper diet that includes adequate calcium and vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.
Thanks to aggressive care, Field will likely avoid the painful and debilitating fate that so many women before her have suffered through osteoporosis, including her grandmother.
'My grandmother Joy was in great pain the last years of her life, in her 90s, because of a broken back' Field said. 'She broke her back by sitting down on a bench.' Field didn't know of her grandmother's osteoporosis and bone breaks until Field's mother shared the story with her.
With increased bone health knowledge and improved care, women can now prevent or reduce osteoporosis problems.
Every woman should receive a bone density test by age 65 to determine if she has osteoporosis or is at high risk for the disease. Starting at age 40, you should talk to your doctor or nurse about your risk factors for osteoporosis to determine if you need earlier or more frequent screening.
The key to good bone health starts when you are young.
'Until you're about 30, your bones are still growing,' Siris said. 'You can build more bone. After 30 you build the rest of your body to support your bones.'
To build strong bones, young girls, adolescents, and young women need to exercise regularly and maintain good nutrition, with an emphasis on calcium and vitamin D.
The simple act of increasing vitamin D and calcium consumption reduced the risk of stress fractures by 25 percent in new recruits in the U.S. Navy, Tosi said, referring to a recent study.
What was Field's message for members of Congress?
'I urge them to look after themselves,' Field said. 'Two-thirds of the women in Congress are over 50. We need for them to stay healthy so they can go home and talk to their constituents about this important issue.'