Bone up on bone health

Adults tend to put off worrying about bone health until later in life. Instead, we focus on staying trim, eating healthfully and doing our best to ward off any number of unwelcome diseases, including cancer, heart attacks, stroke and the like. But here's the rub: bones, which are critical to your overall health, need attention early on. Building healthy bones begins in childhood and continues through adolescence, when bones are growing fastest. By the time a child reaches 17, her adult bone mass is almost entirely established. This makes the period in a child's life between ages 9 and 18 the most crucial in terms of getting adequate calcium. By the age of 25, your bone density is pretty much set.

Here's how it works: your bones are constantly in flux, and your body is constantly losing old bone as it generates new bone. In your younger years, your body generates new bone faster than it loses old bone. But once your bone density reaches its peak – usually sometime between 18 and 25 – the rate at which your body forms and loses new bone changes. Men's and women's bone loss tends to speed up in midlife, with women experiencing marked bone loss after menopause. Other risk factors play a part in bone loss as well, such as family history, body size, poor diet, smoking and too much caffeine or alcohol.

If you're an adult and you don't remember how much milk you drank as a kid, don't worry. You can take action now to mitigate the risk of developing brittle bones as you age. And if you're a parent, you can take action to help your children build and maintain bone mass, which will help prevent bone deterioration in their later years.

Youth is the window of opportunity: milk it

So, how much calcium is recommended for youngsters? Toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 need the equivalent of roughly one and a half cups of milk daily. At 9, kids need the equivalent of roughly four and a half cups of milk each day, or 1,300 milligrams of calcium. From the time they turn 9 until their 18th birthdays, your children need to sustain that level of calcium intake.

Fear not if your children scowl at the sight of yet another glass of milk – milk alone isn't the only calcium source that does a body good. There are plenty of other calcium-rich options that can help boost their daily intake, including dark green, leafy vegetables, such as bok choy, broccoli, kale and spinach; almonds; soybeans and tofu; salmon; legumes; and foods typically fortified with calcium, such as orange juice, breads and breakfast cereals. Milk products, such as low-fat yogurt and cheese, are naturally good sources as well.

Getting enough calcium is the most important factor in building bone health, but weight-bearing exercise also can have a significant impact on building bone mass in youth. Young people who play basketball, field hockey, soccer and tennis, or who hike or run are contributing to the formation of new bone tissue, which makes bones stronger.

It's never too late to fortify older bones

For grown-ups who are long past the childhood bone-building window, the obvious answer to better bone health is calcium. But calcium alone won't do the trick. Your body needs vitamin D to help it absorb calcium. Adults older than 50 require a total of 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily (equivalent to the calcium in four cups of nonfat milk) as well as 800 to 1,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin D. Adults younger than 50 should take 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily (equivalent to the calcium in three and one-third cups of nonfat milk) and 400 to 800 IUs of vitamin D daily. These amounts include calcium and vitamin D from food, supplements, and in the case of vitamin D – sunshine. Taken together, calcium and vitamin D will help maintain a steady bone density.

Before you introduce a calcium or vitamin D supplement into your daily regimen, speak with your health care provider. You should know the proper amount to take in proportion to what you get from your diet. Some medications also can interact adversely with calcium, so it's important to know when and how to take these supplements.

Exercise is another great way for adults to help old bones behave more youthfully – and to avoid developing osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, running, dancing and weight lifting can help maintain bone density and delay or prevent osteoporosis.

For more information on osteoporosis, visit Providence Health & Services' Osteoporosis Resource Center.