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Osteopenia - The Warning Sign: August 01, 2011

Susan Cross was leaving nothing to chance when she had a bone density scan to screen for osteoporosis.

"It was sort of like an MRI, they just scan you. There's no pain; doesn't take really that long. There's no preparation."

The test showed she had osteopenia, which is a related disorder.

"Once you have a bone density test done, if you do have what we call osteopenia where you're starting to lose calcium out of your bones, or you've lost sufficient calcium out of your bones - so now we call it osteoporosis," says Dr. David Heligman, an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff of Lee Memorial Health System.

Bones naturally become thinner as people grow older. Beginning in middle age, existing bone cells are reabsorbed by the body faster than new bone is made.

Osteopenia affects about half of Americans over the age of 50. Women are far more likely to have it because bone loss speeds up as hormones change.

"When women enter the post menopausal phase in their life, usually after 50, their estrogen levels decrease and that causes absorption of calcium and vitamin D to decrease in the sense that the amount of calcium in the bones is decreasing and the bones are getting weaker," says Dr. Heligman.

The term 'osteopenia' may sound intimidating but is simply treated with calcium supplements.

"In terms of the amount of calcium you need, you need 1000 milligrams of calcium a day and you can either take like Oscale or Caltrate or any of those - usually two pills a day," says Dr. Heligman.

Osteopenia is considered by many doctors to be a precursor to the more serious osteoporosis. Patients can lower their risk of more damaging bone loss by adopting healthier habits.

"I haven't had any problems or weaknesses, like I said I go to the gym three days a week," says Cross.

It is worth the effort for Susan to keep her body and bones strong.