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Caring for Someone with Arthritis or Osteoporosis

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenMarch 3, 2016

It’s no secret that our bones thin and our joints deteriorate as we age. Learning the warning signs and being aware of problem symptoms — as well as knowing a senior’s health history — can help your loved one avoid scary consequences with arthritis or osteoporosis.

Arthritis and Osteoporosis in the Elderly

Healthy bones can equate to better quality of life. But the truth is that osteoporosis is one of the most common problems of aging, striking more than half of all adults over age 50. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), each year an estimated 1.5 million individuals suffer a fracture due to bone disease.

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Making matters worse, falls are quite common in the elderly and are the leading cause of injury in seniors in the U.S. because seniors have weak and thinning bones. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-third of seniors fall each year. Those falls can lead to severe hip fractures, head trauma and even death.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also notes that 49.7% of adults 65 years or older reported doctor-diagnosed arthritis, making everyday life more uncomfortable and unmanageable.

Bone problems are obviously a painful problem in the U.S., both literally and figuratively. Luckily there are a number of warning signs and preventative measures to take to help ease bone-health problems.

Differences Between Arthritis and Osteoporosis

Arthritis and osteoporosis are often confused. Here are brief overviews to help you decipher the differences.


Arthritis is a general term for conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissues. Joints are places in the body where bones come together, such as the fingers, wrists, knees, hips and toes. The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, but there are many different kinds, as noted by the Arthritis Foundation.


Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones to the point where they break easily; most often in the hip, backbone (spine), and wrist. Osteoporosis is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’ as you may not notice any changes until a bone breaks, even though bones have been thinning and losing strength for many years. The bones become less dense and more likely to fracture.

Ways You Can Help Prevent Bone Problems

So how can you help your aging loved one lead a better life? How do you know whether his or her bones are sturdy enough to keep them safe? Here are some predictors of bone disease and ways to help your elderly loved one be healthy:

1. Get a Bone Density Test

Also referred to as a DXA scan or densitometry, a bone density test is a special type of x-ray that measures the amount of calcium and other important bone-hardening minerals within bone segments. Doctors use these tests to predict fracture risk as they show whether bones are dense and strong compared to fragile and porous. Bones need to be strong enough to sustain some impact, so a warning that there is a problem is if a bone or bones break easily.

2. Eat Healthy and Get Exercise

Thin seniors or those who have had more delicate frames throughout life can be at more risk for osteoporosis. Eating a diet high in dairy and other calcium-rich foods and getting exercise is important. Consult a doctor to find out whether a calcium-magnesium-vitamin D supplement and strength training should be part of the seniors lifestyle to help prevent bone loss.

3. Order a Calcium and Vitamin D Test

If your loved one takes prednisone or other corticosteroids to treat an autoimmune condition, their bones could be at more risk. Doctors often order a 24-hour urine calcium analysis and vitamin D test to check that the senior has enough of these bone-strengthening nutrients. Check with your doctor to find out whether these tests should be done on your elderly loved one.

4. Quit Smoking

Everyone knows smoking is bad for health, but not everyone knows its effect on bones. When you smoke, you put yourself at risk for loss of bone mass. Whether you’re 30 or 70 when you quit, your bones can reap the health benefits of being a nonsmoker to give your body a chance to recuperate.

5. Quit Drinking

Alcohol is another bone-weakener. It leaches calcium, magnesium and other minerals to make you more susceptible to osteoporosis. Women are more vulnerable, but the general rule is to consume alcohol in moderation. It is strongly recommended that seniors only drink occasionally, but as a general rule they should consume no more than one or two drinks a day, max. Try switching to warm milk with honey or herb tea, if possible.

6. Consult a Doctor if There’s an Eating Disorder History

If your loved one has a history of an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, bring it to the attention of his or her doctor. It is important the senior is getting enough bone-nourishment through either supplements or foods rich in calcium, magnesium and vitamin D.

7. Consult a Doctor if There’s a Relative Who Had Osteoporosis Before the Age of 50 (or Before Menopause)

Compile a family health history by talking to anyone privy of family information. If your aging loved one has had relatives who suffered from osteoporosis or arthritis, chances are he or she is susceptible. Talk to their doctor for more information on how to preventatively treat.

8. Know Your Age, Gender and Racial Risks

Certain backgrounds, for instance, people over age 50 and females, are more likely to suffer from thinning bones. According to NIH, low bone mass is much more common than once believed in all ethnic groups; with Asian and African-American women especially having reason to be concerned. Center for Health Statistics reports that since bone thinning and inflammation of joints increases with age, osteoporosis and arthritis experts believe that after the age of 75, 90% of women will suffer a fracture and have problems with joints. Knowledge of individual risks can help lead a better bone-health lifestyle.

Risk Factors and Treatment Options for Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoporosis

The secret to stronger bones and better quality of life obviously includes many variables, including genetics, lifestyle and more.

The table below provided by the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center shows an overview of some of the similarities and differences among osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoporosis. Some individuals with these conditions may have a different experience or may require a different medical approach to manage their disorder(s).

ARTHRITISRisk FactorsAge-relatedXXMenopauseXFamily historyXXXUse of certain medications (e.g., glucocorticoids, seizure medications)XCalcium deficiency or inadequate vitamin DXInactivityXOveruse of jointsXSmokingXExcessive alcoholXAnorexia nervosaXExcessive weightXPhysical EffectsAffects entire skeletonXAffects jointsXXIs an autoimmune diseaseXBony spursXXEnlarged or malformed jointsXXHeight lossXTreatment OptionsRaloxifeneXBisphosphonatesXCalcitoninXParathyroid hormoneXEstrogen/hormone therapyXRANK ligand (RANKL) inhibitorXCalcium and vitamin DXWeight managementXGlucocorticoidsXNSAIDsXXXMethotrexateXDisease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, biologic response modifiers, tumor necrosis factor inhibitors.XPain ManagementPain medication (e.g., NSAIDS, narcotics, muscle relaxants)XXXRehabilitationXXXSupport groupsXXXExercises: posturalXXXExercises: isometric, isotonic, isokineticXXXJoint splintingXXPhysical therapyXXXPassive exercisesXXHip fracture surgical repair (may include hip replacement depending on type of fracture)XJoint replacement surgery (usually for pain, malformation, or impaired mobility)XXHeat and coldXXXMassage therapyXXXAcupunctureXXXPsychological approaches (e.g., relaxation, visualization, biofeedback)XXXTai chiXXXLow stress yogaXXX

Has your family experienced issues related to bone health? What preventative health measures or treatment options have helped you? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
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