According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, 44 million Americans over the age of 50 have osteoporosis or low bone mass. That means that a majority of U.S. adults aged 50 and older are at an increased risk for injuries such as bone fractures. One of the ways that physicians determine bone density is a DEXA scan.
Low bone density and osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a disease that makes bones weak and brittle. It’s possible to have low bone density – or low bone mass – but not have osteoporosis. Low bone density is sometimes called osteopenia. People with low bone mass are at a higher risk for bone fractures.
Low bone density can be difficult to detect early on when it is most treatable. Many people do not know that they have low bone density or osteoporosis until after breaking a bone or having a vertebrae collapse. While there are ways to slow down bone loss even after you have osteoporosis, it’s better to work towards improving bone health before you develop a health problem.
Getting a test – such as a DEXA scan – to learn your bone mineral density is a good way to stay ahead of osteoporosis and low bone mass, and keep your bones healthy and strong.
What is a DEXA scan?
DEXA stands for “dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry”. A DEXA scan is a type of bone density testing that uses low-dose x-rays to measure bone loss. It’s safe, simple, quick, and non-invasive.
There are two different types of DEXA scan.
- A Central DEXA scan measures bone density in the lower spine and hips. This is the most common method for detecting osteoporosis.
- Peripheral DEXA scans – also known as (p-DEXA) – measures bone density in your leg, wrist, fingers, or foot.
The results from your scan are compared to the expected bone density of a healthy adult of the same age and gender (Z-score), and the bone density of a healthy 30-year-old (T-score).
Your doctor will help you understand the results from your bone density test.
Be proactive with bone health
You gain bone mass throughout your childhood and adolescence. Most people typically reach peak bone mass before age 30. After this point, you lose more bone density than you are able to gain. This means that it’s important to build bone mass early in life and do things to keep your bones strong throughout your life.
Diets rich in calcium and vitamin D are a great way to strengthen bones. Physical activity is also crucial to improving bone health. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, calisthenics, hiking, tennis, etc. are particularly effective in improving bone health and preventing bone loss. Exercise also decreases the risk of bone fractures in people who already have low bone mass by strengthening bones and muscles and improving balance.
Meeting with your primary care doctor to discuss bone density testing is also a great proactive measure to improve bone health. Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist.