Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Osteoporosis is a bone disorder. The bones become thinner. They lose their strength and are more likely to break. People with osteoporosis have a higher risk of fractures.

Bones can fracture even during everyday movements, such as bending or coughing. The most common osteoporotic fractures occur in the wrist, hip and spine.

Osteoporosis can cause a great deal of suffering, including loss of independence. Death may even occur, especially when the fracture involves the hip.

Hip fractures can be difficult to heal. They reduce the person's ability to move around. This can lead to complications and other health problems.

Osteoporosis is much more common in women than in men. This is because of the hormonal changes that occur during menopause.

Osteoporosis is not a form of arthritis. However, it can cause fractures that lead to arthritis.

Risk Factors

You are more likely to develop osteoporosis if you:

  • Are female

  • Are 50 or older

  • Are postmenopausal

  • Have a diet low in calcium

  • Have an intestinal problem that prevents calcium and vitamins from being absorbed

  • Have an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or take too much thyroid hormone

  • Lead a sedentary lifestyle

  • Are thin

  • Take certain medications, such as prednisone

  • Are Caucasian or of Asian descent

  • Smoke

  • Drink too much alcohol

  • Have a family history of osteoporosis

  • Have had at least one "fragility" fracture (one caused by little or no trauma)

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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