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Research finds post-menopausal condition in men as young as 35

INSIDER logoINSIDER 5/30/2019 Anna Medaris Miller

Kevin Cuenca sitting on a table © Mighty

  • A quarter of 35- to 50-year-old men have low bone density, a new study has found.
  • That condition, which is thought mostly to affect post-menopausal women, raises the risk of fractures, permanent bone damage, and osteoporosis.
  • The findings call into question current screening recommendations, which only address people over age 50.
  • Doing weight-bearing exercise, consuming enough calcium and vitamin D, and avoiding smoking or drinking are the best ways to prevent bone loss. 

Men as young as 35 aren't typically concerned with the robustness of their bones, especially if they hit the gym regularly.

But according to new research published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, more than a quarter (28%) of 35- to 50-year old men have osteopenia, or weaker-than-normal bones. That condition puts people at higher risk of fractures, permanent bone damage, and osteoporosis.

The study results showed that the bone-density issues were present even though most of the male participants said they exercised about five times per week. A slightly smaller portion of women in the same age group (26%) also had the condition.

"We typically associate loss of bone mineral density with post-menopausal women, but our findings showed elevated risk in younger men," lead study author Martha Ann Bass, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi, said in a statement. "Almost all participants who were found to have osteopenia were surprised, and I think this is a more prevalent issue than anyone expected."

The researchers used bone-scanning technology to determine the participants' bone density, and distributed a questionnaire to gauge their calcium intake, exercise routines, smoking habits, family history, and past injuries.

Osteopenia and osteoporosis have mostly been classified as women's issues, especially among older women, in part because estrogen levels decrease once women hit menopause, which affects bone loss. According to the U.S. Office on Women's Health, 80% of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis are women. But genetics, race, ethnicity, and lifestyle factors including smoking, a calcium-poor diet, and physical inactivity can contribute to bone loss in all populations, young men included.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation doesn't currently recommend screenings for men or women under 50. But the new study suggests younger people may also benefit from screenings and the subsequent behavioral changes the tests might inspire.

People typically reach "peak bone mass" by age 20, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ideally, parents help their kids build up their bone health through diet and exercise in childhood. Children from 4 to 8 years old, for example, should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, the NIH says. (That'd be about 16 ounces of milk, an 8-ounce serving of broccoli rabe, and 4 ounces of calcium-fortified tofu.) Kids from 9 to 18 should aim for a higher intake: 1,300 milligrams daily.

"The great news is that the earlier you start, the longer you have to try to build some bones," study author Allison Ford, a professor at the University of Mississippi, told INSIDER.

Maintaining bone density throughout your life requires doing weight-bearing exercise, getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and avoiding cigarettes and excessive quantities of alcohol.

"We can't build bone after we've reached peak bone mass, so the goal is to hold onto the bone you do have," Ford said.

Any changes to protocols about who should get bone-density screenings and at what ages won't be instituted overnight. That would likely require more insurance companies to get on board. Patients may also need education about the risks of bone loss, since many may be hesitant to get a scan due to concerns about radiation, according to the study authors.

An effort to update recommendations would also require more research. The current study had several limitations: It involved a relatively small sample (173 people), almost all of whom were white. The researchers also didn't look at how factors like weight, non-dairy sources of calcium, and types of exercise may have played into participants' bone-density levels.

"This is a surprising finding, and we need to do more research on men," Ford said. "And people need to get bone scans earlier."

Related Video: The Rising Tide of Osteoporosis (Provided by KTVI-TV St. Louis)

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