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Am I at Risk for Osteoporosis – and Other Frequently-Asked Questions

As people age, they become more likely to develop osteoporosis, a disease that occurs when bones lose density and mass, which can cause bones to be brittle, weak and easily broken. During Osteoporosis Awareness month, at-risk Americans are encouraged to take positive actions to monitor their bone health.

Below, Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Retiree Solutions, answers common questions about osteoporosis and shares more about a test that can help diagnose osteoporosis or determine if you might be at risk.

How common is osteoporosis?
An estimated 54 million Americans have osteoporosis and low bone mass, which means they have an increased risk for osteoporosis. Studies suggest that approximately half of women and a quarter of men age 50 and older will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is responsible for 2 million broken bones and 75,000 deaths every year.

Osteoporotic bone breaks most often occur in the hip, spine or wrist, but other bones can break too. Beyond significant, often permanent pain, these fractures can have many other consequences, including frailty and limited mobility, complications related to the broken bone itself or the surgery to repair it, and the necessity of long-term care and institutionalization.


How is it diagnosed?

Talking to your doctor will help ensure you get the test that may be needed to correctly diagnosis osteoporosis, which may be a simple bone mineral density (BMD) test like a DEXA scan. BMD tests can identify osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs and measure your response to osteoporosis treatment.

Should I get tested?
BMD tests are recommended for women age 65 or older and men age 70 or older. Osteoporosis is more common in women than men, and is more common after menopause, so women should begin talking to their doctor about osteoporosis before menopause. Anyone with several of these risk factors – both controllable and uncontrollable – should also discuss it at a younger age than the general guidelines.

Consider asking your doctor if you should complete a bone density test to determine how healthy your bones are. If you’re a UnitedHealthcare member, you might get a call directly offering an osteoporosis screening that wouldn’t require a prescription from your doctor.

What do the test results mean?
Your doctor will discuss your bone density test with you, and help you interpret the results. Bone density test results are reported using T-scores, which show how much less dense your bones are than those of a healthy 30-year-old. A T-score of -1.0 or above is normal bone density, and a T-score of -2.5 or below is a diagnosis of osteoporosis, according to the World Health Organization. Although not everyone who has low bone mass will develop osteoporosis, those with low bone mass are at higher risk.

How often should you be tested?
BMD testing frequency depends on factors including age, past bone density results and whether you are taking an osteoporosis treatment. Be sure to discuss your specific needs with your health care provider.

Does Medicare cover these tests?
Medicare plans cover the full cost of bone mass measurement testing once every 24 months for people who meet certain criteria, but the test may be covered more often if deemed medically necessary.

What else should I know?
There is no one single way to ensure healthy bones, but there are many great habits that can put you on the right path. Incorporate enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet; avoid smoking and drinking; maintain a regular exercise routine (you might want to give yoga a try!); and take steps to minimize your risk of falls.

If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or have had fractures, talk with your doctor about medication options, which can vary based on gender, age, bone health and other factors.