Those aches and creaks when you roll over in the morning can often become more common as the years go by. Age-related changes in your bones, muscles and joints are a fact of life, but they’re also preventable – don’t assume that those creaking noises and pain are an inevitable part of aging. There are many things you can do to prevent pain, as well as reduce your risk for diseases like osteoporosis and arthritis.
As we age, our muscle and joint tissue changes, becoming thinner and more brittle. Certain diseases and conditions can affect the structure of your bones and muscles as well, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. That can mean joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and deformity – as well as a significant risk of falls and fractured bones.
You can stay active and help minimize bone and joint problems by following some simple nutrition and lifestyle guidelines – and by seeing your doctor regularly for screening tests to determine your risk for diseases that affect the bones and muscles. If diagnosed early, the effects of these diseases can be slowed, though lost bone and muscle matter cannot be regenerated.
Risk factors for osteoporosis can be minimized: by eating a diet rich in calcium (i.e., at least 1,000 mg/day for adults up to age 50, and 1,200-1,500 for those over age 65) and vitamin D, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
In addition to good nutrition, weight-bearing exercise can lower your risk level for osteoporosis and related diseases: walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, lifting weights or dancing.
Healthy bones are just one part of the fitness equation. Your joints and soft tissues provide the support and cushioning you need to stay active, so it’s important to take good care of them, too. If you’re an athlete, you may have experienced more than your fair share of wear and tear. The good news is, the benefits of exercise outweigh the minuses of impact-bearing activities, and actually help keep your bones and joints healthy.
Exercises that are kind on our joints include swimming, yoga and bicycling. Activities that emphasize range of motion, strength development and endurance help preserve good joint function. Stay away from high-impact and competitive sports such as step aerobics, soccer, running, skiing, basketball and softball. These types of exercise can often result in injuries and can be hard on your joints.
Joint pain and inflammation happens as the cartilage and other soft tissues in between our bones become less elastic as we age, or are injured. Arthritis – the leading cause of mobility problems among Americans age 15 and up – can develop at any age, but is most common among adults age 65 or older. The two most common forms are osteoarthritis, which primarily affects our weight-bearing joints such as knees and hips, or hands; and rheumatoid arthritis, which impacts other joints. By maintaining an appropriate body weight, you can limit unnecessary stress on your joints, particularly the hips and knees.
It is also important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for necessary screenings, such as a bone density test, which determines your bone mass and likelihood of developing osteoporosis. All women 65 years and older should have this test, as well as women or men age 50 or older who have a broken bone or one or more known risk factors.
Finally, over-the-counter medications may relieve symptoms of joint pain and decrease further degeneration of cartilage. Joint replacement surgery is an option, although it is generally discussed when other methods of pain control and mobility improvement have failed.
Caring for your bones and joints is a lifelong journey, and it’s imperative to be proactive: eating right, getting plenty of exercise, and safeguarding against injury. By doing the right things now, patients reap the benefits of staying pain-free and active, later in life.
(Editor’s Note: José Alicea, M.D. is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians. He is a member of the medical staff at Northwest Medical Center and Oro Valley Hospital. The office phone is 520-382-3050 or www.mytucsondoc.com.)