The recipe for strong bones for life

Bone health is a bit like saving for your pension: hard to get excited about when you're young but the sooner you start, the better.

Taking care of your bones is a lifelong investment that will pay dividends by helping you to stay fit and independent later in life.

Like pensions, it's never too late to start. There's plenty you can do to keep your bones fit for purpose, whatever your age.

Let's be clear: bone health isn't just about bones. "It's about your quality of life as you get older," says Ruthe Isden of charity Age UK.

"Bone health is about staying fit and well as we get older so we can continue to do the things we enjoy," she says.

As we live longer, more and more of us will become vulnerable to weak bones (osteoporosis) and breaking bones from falls.

Life-changing fracture

About one in three people over 65, and half of people over 80, fall each year in the UK. One in two women, and one in five men over 50, will break a bone, typically in the wrist, hip and spine, as a result of osteoporosis.

A fall later in life can be life-changing, leading to distress, pain, injury, loss of confidence, loss of independence and death.

Half of older people never regain their former level of function after a hip fracture and one in five dies within three months.

"Falls are the number one precipitating factor for a person losing independence and going into long-term care," wrote Professor Kevin Fenton, Public Health England national director for health and wellbeing in a blog post.

What you can do

But it doesn't have to be this way, says leading bone and joint expert Professor Anthony Woolf, a rheumatologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust. "Osteoporosis and falls are not an inevitable part of ageing and much can be done to prevent them," he says.

Preventing osteoporosis starts in childhood, if not earlier, when our bones are growing, and continues throughout life. "Building healthy bones actually starts in the womb where the baby's skeleton is developing," says Professor Woolf. "A real life course approach is needed to help people have bones fit for purpose as they age."

The recipe for lifelong strong bones is a healthy balanced diet that includes calcium, exposure to summer sunlight for most of our vitamin D, and regular exercise as well as avoiding certain risk factors, including smoking and too much alcohol.

The same lifestyle advice applies to people with the menopause, osteoporosis or at risk of fracture as it will help reduce the rate of bone loss and their risk of falling.

Get diet advice and exercise tips to help people of all ages build and maintain strong bones.

Bone-building years

The key bone-building years are those up to our mid-20s, when the skeleton is growing. For example, the bone accumulated in girls aged 11 to 13 is about the same amount lost during the 30 years following the menopause. Research has shown that gymnasts aged 10 have much stronger bones than inactive youngsters of the same age.

The gains achieved during youth put the skeleton in a better position to withstand the bone loss that occurs with age. Get tips on boosting your child's bone health. After about 35, bone loss gradually increases as part of the natural ageing process.

Work out if you're at risk of developing osteoporosis and breaking a bone in the next 10 years. Get tips on maintaining strong bones as you get older. Read how Judi Paxton beat osteoporosis by making some simple changes to her lifestyle.

Preventing falls

People with osteoporosis have weak bones, but it's falls that break bones. Work out if you're at risk of falling.

While it is impossible to prevent all falls, there are lifestyle and practical measures that can reduce their occurrence.

The most effective measures to prevent falls among people considered at risk involve:

  • strength and balance exercises
  • checking the home for trip and other hazards
  • checking eyesight
  • reviewing medication, which may affect balance

For more fall prevention tips download Get Up and Go: A Guide to Staying Steady (PDF).

"Physical activity and exercise can turn back the clock on some of the losses in bone strength caused by age and disease," says Professor Woolf.

Research suggests that a programme of strength and balance exercises tailored to the individual can reduce the risk of falls by 35% to 54% (PDF, 309kb).

Age UK says that fall prevention exercises could prevent 7,000 unnecessary deaths a year – 19 a day – from hip fractures. 

Page last reviewed: 17/02/2015

Next review due: 02/02/2017

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Useful links

External links

Are you at risk of a fall? The timed get up and go test

Watch this video to find out how to test whether you or a loved one are at risk of a fall.

Media last reviewed: 29/09/2015

Next review due: 29/09/2017

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis causes your bones to become thin and fragile. Although there's no cure, there are ways to reduce your risk of fracture and slow down the progression of the condition.

Media last reviewed: 14/07/2015

Next review due: 14/07/2017

DEXA (DXA) scan

Commonly used to diagnose osteoporosis, a DEXA scan is a type of X-ray that measures the amount of calcium in bones

Preventing falls

Read how special exercises and simple changes to the home can reduce your chances of having a fall

Osteoporosis

This condition, which weakens bones, affects around 3 million people in the UK