Preventing Osteoporosis the 'silent' disease


Osteo Adrienne portrait

By Adrienne von Tuzelmann

At least one in three women and one in five men will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture during their lifetime.

Seeing her beautiful, strong mother become increasingly frail in later life and eventually die from complications of osteoporosis, was a wake-up call for Adrienne von Tuzelmann.

“It was my red alert to take steps to look after my own bones, and learn as much as I could to avoid suffering the same fate as Mum and before her, my Nana, whose genes I had inherited.

“Family history is one of the main risk factors for osteoporosis."

Osteoporosis is a bone disease which occurs when the body loses too much bone or makes too little bone, or both.

As a result, bones become thin and fragile and they break easily.

“It’s not surprising it’s often called the ‘silent disease’ as there are no obvious symptoms and so many cases go undiagnosed,” says Adrienne.

“It is usually only when a person breaks a bone from a minor fall or a bump that the flag goes up.

“In Mum’s case it was her dramatic loss in height and increasingly stooped posture from collapsed vertebrae, and the associated pain.”

Osteo in WAAF uniform

Adrienne’s mum with stick

Valerie von Tuzelmann as a WAAF and later in life (right)

About 30,000 clinically obvious fractures happen every year in New Zealand, including around 4,000 hip fractures, at a cost to the health system of $145 million.

After having an osteoporotic fracture, the chance of having another fracture doubles.

Hip fractures are arguably the most serious and devastating - half of hip fracture sufferers require long-term care and a quarter suffer an early death.

Half of people who break a hip have suffered another broken bone such as the wrist, spine, or shoulder - before breaking their hip.

Bone density check

Adrienne is a board member of Osteoporosis NZ and is doing what she can to raise awareness of the issues.

“My mother’s generation knew little if anything about osteoporosis,” she says.

Her mother’s frailty prompted Adrienne to check out the state of her own health.

“It was a tough way to learn about the importance of good bone health,” says Adrienne.

A bone density scan in her mid 40s showed she was in the ‘at risk’ category.

Osteo Adrienne pushups

Adrienne (above at pilates) set out to reduce the risks.

“I count myself lucky to have had over two decades to do all the right things – a healthy balanced diet, regular exercise, particularly to build strength and balance, Vitamin D and generally keeping active,” she says.

“I have been fortunate too that effective medicines have been available over that time, which wasn’t the case for my mother’s generation.”

She is now in the standard range for her age group and says it’s never too late to start looking after your health.

Another key message is that the first or ‘signal’ fracture should be used to prevent further fractures.

If the fracture is found to be as a result of osteoporosis, treatment with osteoporosis medications can decrease further fractures by up to 70 per cent.

“Fractures from osteoporosis exert a tremendous burden on older New Zealanders,” says Adrienne, “and on the national economy and our health and social care systems as well. Hopefully higher levels of public awareness will change this.”

She says it can be controlled.

“The good news is that there are many steps people can take in their daily lives to prevent and control osteoporosis - at every stage of life - and they are not hard things to do.”

Tips for a fracture-free future

  • Include weight-bearing exercises to keep bones healthy
  • Strengthening your muscles through exercise will help
  • Balance training is essential
  • Maintain a healthy body weight and avoid being too thin or too overweight
  • Cut out smoking and reduce excessive drinking

Editor's note: Views of contributors are not necessarily those of the Office for Seniors.