May 28 (UPI) -- Symptoms of bone weakening are appearing in younger people, prompting calls for more awareness in the group, new research shows.
About 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women between ages 35 and 50 years who received scans had osteopenia, which can lead to osteoporosis, according to a study published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
Osteopenia is when the bone weakens but not enough to break.
Osteoporosis occurs when the bone becomes brittle, allowing it to break easily. However, the condition affects men and women differently. For more than 24.5 percent of women, osteoporosis affects their femur neck or lumbar spine, compared to only 5.1 percent of men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We typically associate loss of bone mineral density with post-menopausal women, but our findings showed elevated risk in younger men," Martha Ann Bass, a researcher at University of Mississippi and study lead author, said in a news release. "Almost all participants who were found to have osteopenia were surprised and I think this is a more prevalent issue than anyone expected."
The researchers used a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry to scan 173 adults at the femoral hip and lumbar spine. This examination exposed the participants to a minimal amount of radiation.
More middle-aged adults, Bass says, should get scanned to evaluate their risk and begin a baseline for analysis.
Bone mineral density is a key marker for overall bone health, which is influenced by the environment, lifestyle, physical activity and genetics. Most people reach peak bone density by age 30.
The researchers say people often overvalue the benefits of calcium in keeping their bones healthy, which usually works best during bone development. Other studies also report vitamin D supplements, also a long-established method of maintaining bone density, have no value in fighting the osteoporosis.
"Calcium plays a larger role when bones are still developing," Bass said. "After that, the body begins to rely on weight-bearing exercise to keep bones strong. It really does boil down to use it or lose it."
In light of these findings, the researchers think doctors need to make younger patients more aware of the problem.
"Primary care physicians should begin educating patients as early as adolescence or young adulthood so the consequences of osteoporosis can be prevented," researchers wrote in the study. "The result would be the prevention of future bone fractures and the morbidity and mortality associated with bone fractures, thus leading to improved quality of life," the authors wrote."