It’s true that our bones tend to lose strength as we get older. But even in later years there is plenty we can do to slow down bone loss and avoid the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
“Fractures related to osteoporosis mainly occur later in life and we’re all living longer – men and women,” says Sarah Leyland, senior osteoporosis nurse at the National Osteoporosis Society. “But even when you are over 65 there are still things you can do to strengthen your bones as well as reduce your risk of falling, to prevent fractures.”
Stay active over 65 for healthy bones
In general our activity levels tend to drop as we get older. You may feel you don’t have the energy to exercise or that you may harm yourself in some way. Physical problems like stiff, painful joints can also make us less inclined to be active.
The problem is that being inactive makes your muscles and bones lose strength. This increases your risk of osteoporosis, falls and fractures. By staying active you can significantly lower your risk of breaking a bone.
Doing something is always better than doing nothing. But for optimum health, it’s recommended that people over 65 get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, in bouts of 10 minutes or more, every week.
With moderate-intensity activities you will get warmer, breathe harder and your heart will beat faster, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation. Examples include a round of golf with friends, doing some gardening, or taking the dog for a walk.
Muscle strength is vital for improving your balance and staying independent and mobile in later years. It’s recommended that people over the age of 65 do activities to improve muscle strength at least twice a week. This could include dancing, carrying groceries, going up and down stairs, or exercising to music – in fact, anything that challenges your muscles.
It’s also a good idea to do activities to improve balance and co-ordination twice a week as this can reduce your risk of falling. Things such as yoga or tai chi are best for this. These types of activity can also ease stiffness and unsteadiness associated with painful joints.
Another important tip for over 65s is to avoid sitting around for long periods. As well as reducing muscle and bone strength, this can make joints feel stiffer and so increase the risk of falls. If you find you have been sitting for more than about 20-30 minutes, get up and go for a stroll.
See more on the risks of sitting for long periods.
Physical problems, such as painful joints, needn’t prevent you from being active. Classes are available for people who are older or who have underlying health conditions, such as heart disease or arthritis. Ask your GP or practice nurse, or make enquiries at your local leisure centre.
See physical activity guidelines for older adults.
Exercising with osteoporosis
If you have a high fracture risk or spinal fractures caused by osteoporosis, you need to look after your back. It’s especially important to bend your knees when lifting objects. Avoid movements that involve awkward bending and lifting movements. You may need to be cautious about some types of high impact exercises. Your GP can advise you about this.
Eating for healthy bones over 65
Some people find their appetite starts to drop as they get older. Eating less can make it more difficult to get the nutrients you need to keep muscles and bones strong and healthy.
Staying active will help to keep your appetite up. But if you don’t feel like eating much some days, it’s still important to try and stick to a balanced diet, says Sarah Leyland. “Don’t just have tea and biscuits,” she says. “Try to keep to a balanced diet with fruit and veg, dairy, carbohydrates and protein.”
Maintaining a balanced diet will ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need. Healthy muscles and bones especially need calcium, vitamin D and protein. Calcium is what makes our bones (and teeth) strong and rigid, and vitamin D helps our bodies to absorb calcium.
Protein, meanwhile, is important for muscle strength. “Low protein has been linked with a higher risk of hip fracture in older people,” says Leyland.
Another reason to eat a balanced diet is that it will help you to maintain a healthy body weight. Being underweight is linked to a higher risk of fractures.
If your diet isn’t as good as it should be you may want to consider taking a dietary supplement. Go for one that contains calcium and vitamin D. Your GP or pharmacist can help you choose one that’s suitable for you.
Some medicines can affect your appetite. If you think a medicine you are taking may be affecting your appetite, perhaps because it makes you feel nauseous, talk with your pharmacist or GP. They may be able to suggest an alternative.
See more about food and diet for strong bones.
Vitamin D and older people
Vitamin D is important for both strong muscles and healthy bones. People aged over 65 are more likely to lack vitamin D. For this reason it’s recommended that people in this age group take a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D. “You can buy this cheaply over the counter or your GP can prescribe it,” says Leyland.
Some foods contain vitamin D. These include oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, eggs, and spreads fortified with vitamin D. However, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone and as we get older our body's ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from food decreases.
The best natural source of vitamin D is summer sunlight. The action of sunlight on bare skin provides us with vitamin D. However, in the UK the sun is only strong enough to make vitamin D from May to September. About 10 minutes’ sun exposure once or twice a day without sunscreen on sunny summer days will help to keep your vitamin D levels topped up.
Taking a vitamin D supplement is particularly important if your diet is poor, you have darker skin, or you don’t get outside much. If you have osteoporosis, your GP may prescribe a calcium supplement, too.
See more about vitamin D.
Other ways to protect bones in over-65s
The older we get the more likely we are to experience broken bones, particularly fractures of the hip or spine. Each year there are about 300,000 fractures in the UK and most of these are in older people.
This is partly because older people are more likely to have osteoporosis but also because they are more likely to have falls.
To help prevent falls and fractures:
Get your eyesight and hearing checked – sight plays a vital role in balance and mobility so make sure you get your eyes tested at least once every two years. Eye tests are free for everybody over the age of 60 in the UK.
Ear problems can also affect your balance. See your GP if you think your hearing is getting worse or you are experiencing any dizziness.
Look after your feet – foot pain can make it difficult to stay active and can increase your risk of falls. See your GP promptly if you have painful feet.
Manage your medicines – some medicines, including some used to control blood pressure, can make you feel faint or dizzy. Regular medication reviews with your GP or pharmacist will ensure that the drugs you take are effective without causing unwelcome side effects.