Well Being: How boomer babes can keep bones dense and strong

At the gym, Sue Edwards, 65, of Swarthmore, lifts weights to battle osteopenia.
At the gym, Sue Edwards, 65, of Swarthmore, lifts weights to battle osteopenia. (Terry McClitis)
Posted: August 28, 2012

Sue Edwards sent me an e-mail recently that ended with this sentence: "I don't want all of the women out there who are in the baby-boom generation to start taking drugs when there is an alternative."

Edwards, 65, of Swarthmore, a retired education specialist, who volunteers for the Sierra Club, has always tried to exercise and stay active. In her 20s, she jogged. She worked out with Jane Fonda videos. During the summers, she swam. When she was a preschool teacher, she got plenty of exercise trying to keep pace with her active charges. And she always enjoyed taking long walks.

When she was about 50, she began experiencing crippling arthritis in her fingers and knees. Sometimes, the pain was so severe she couldn't walk or sleep.

Over time, Edwards saw several rheumatologists and began taking various anti-inflammatory medications. "I tend to be a non-medication person," Edwards says, "and I took them only because I was in such pain."

In late 1998, Edwards had a DEXA scan, which measures bone density. The results showed that she had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis, when bones so diminish in mass and strength that they're much more vulnerable to fractures.

Edwards began taking medication, fish oil capsules, and calcium supplements, and she eventually began working out with a DVD titled "Keeping Fit in Your 50s," which featured light weightlifting, squats, and lunges.

In 2009, Edwards had another scan, which showed that her osteopenia was getting worse.

Her spinal density went from 92 percent to 86.

Her hip density went from 92 percent to 89.

Her femur density went from 81 percent to 75.

(These percentages are based on the optimal peak bone density of a 30-year-old woman.)

Her physician at the time recommended she take Fosamax, which is designed to combat osteoporosis. She began taking the drug in January 2010, but quit the following March. A friend who is a reference librarian had warned her that Fosamax, in some instances, can cause spontaneous breaks of the thigh bone as well as deterioration of the jaw bone. One of Edwards' sisters, in fact, had broken several bones while taking Fosamax.

The problem with Fosamax and similar drugs, says Kate Lindemann, an osteoporosis researcher and senior scholar at the Institute of Aging and Policy at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., is that it slows the rate of bone turnover. While this may lead to greater bone density, less of the old bone is removed. "The bone may be denser," Lindemann says, "but a good percentage is bone the body would normally remove because it's too old or too weak."

After rejecting the recommendation that she take Fosamax as well as another medication called Actonel, Edwards decided to tackle her osteopenia the old-fashioned way: through diet and exercise. In the fall of 2010, she joined Bally's Gym in Woodlyn, signed up for a few sessions with a personal trainer, and after trying a program called Silver Sneakers, designed for senior citizens ("too namby-pamby," she says), she signed up for Powerflex, a body-strengthening class that featured heavier weights.

"I was determined to improve that DEXA scan," Edwards says. "I was motivated."

In December, Edwards had another scan and received the results in January.

Her spinal density had improved to 88 percent.

Her hip density had stayed the same at 89 percent.

Her femur density had improved slightly to 76 percent.

A nice fringe benefit: She also lost 10 pounds.

"I'm thrilled," Edwards says. "The changes may not seem big statistically, but to me they're significant because things are turning around or at least the deterioration has stopped. I was trying to avoid medications that have side effects, and I think I have done this."

Lindemann, who has created a comprehensive and informative website about osteopenia and osteoporosis ( www.osteopenia3.com), emphasizes that she is not a physician and that people should always consult their doctors. That said, the first step in battling osteopenia, she emphasizes, is to find the underlying cause, of which there can be many (she provides a long list on her website). But there's no doubt, she adds, that weight-bearing exercise can be an easy, natural, and effective antidote.

"Aerobic exercise is not going to do much good, but the pressure on the bone of weight-bearing exercise stimulates the bone-building cells, the osteoblasts, so they become more active. The key is to keep increasing the resistance and pressure." So, if you're using a five-pound dumbbell, after a couple of weeks, move up to eight pounds, then 10 pounds.

Edwards continues to walk 4.5 miles two or three times a week on the Smedley-Leiper Trail, often with her husband, George. She has since joined LA Fitness in Springfield, where she takes a rigorous class called "Body Works Plus Abs." She drinks plenty of water, ingests as many omega-3 fatty acids as she can, and eats salmon, walnuts, olive oil, and lots of green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, dark green lettuce). She supplements her diet with fish-oil capsules, multivitamins, Vitamin D, and super calcium tablets that include magnesium that aids absorption. Calcium supplements are ineffective, Edwards notes, unless bone is being stimulated by resistance exercise.

Like many of her peers, Edwards took hormone-replacement therapy, until such unforeseen consequences as breast cancer made it too risky.

"We women at the forefront of the baby boomers," she says, "I feel like we were guinea pigs for several different medications."

Her advice: "People need to read more and not just take their doctor's word for it that they need medication. I believe doctors don't emphasize exercise enough. I think doctors should become more educated about the benefits of exercise, not only for bone health, but also for what it does to improve the plasticity of the brain, boost mood, and stabilize emotions."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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