Love life – and love your bones!

The idea that osteoporosis is an old person’s complaint and only needs to be dealt with in old age, is entirely wrong. The future map of osteoporosis can be laid down the moment you are born, interlaid by your genetic blueprint. If there is a family history of osteoporosis – particularly if it sets in at a younger than usual age – you are going to have to be aware of your lifestyle habits from as early an age as possible to try and prevent this silent disease from taking hold.

But while genetics may alert some people to greater awareness and preventative actions, it’s wise to remember that all people at all ages should understand that what they do today will have an effect on their bones in the future. Osteoporosis can certainly be hereditary, but it can also be a lifestyle disease. And therefore taking action against it should be part of everyday life from childhood through to adolescence, adulthood and well into old age.


Medical science is helping us to live longer. But living those extra years comfortably is our responsibility. Bones matter from our earliest years – and what we do throughout our lives may eventually impact on how we experience that longer life in old age. There is clear evidence that lifestyle factors such as diet and physical activity influence bone development in youth and therefore also the rate of bone loss in later life.
With this in mind, it’s never too early to invest in bone health. Parents should begin this awareness with their children, encouraging active play times – preferably in as much sunlight as is safe because Vitamin D is an essential part of the preventative programme. Young children who engage in 40 minutes of normal vigorous activity each day have significantly stronger bones than others of their age.

People often assume that calcium is the chief element related to the prevention of osteoporosis – but in fact protein plays just as important role. Undernutrition during the growth years which includes insufficient intake of protein, can impact severely on bone development.

Attention to diet is key. Bones are living tissue, and the skeleton grows continually from birth until you die. Around the mid-twenties, bones reach their peak mass. Therefore it is vital to give this development a fundamentally strong basis on which to grow from early childhood. Increasing peak bone mass by 10% may be enough to reduce the risk of fractures due to the development of osteoporosis in older years by up to 50%.

Parents should make sure they give their children:

  • a nutritious diet with adequate calcium
  • a good protein intake
  • plenty of opportunity to participate in regular physical activity
  • time to take advantage of sunshine
  • an environment that is free of the dangers of second-hand smoking.


This is the time for building peak bone health, building on the good care taken during childhood. From birth to early teenage years and the onset of the sexual maturation, the bone mineral mass at any given age is the same in girls as in boys. But during puberty bone mass increases more in boys than in girls, mainly due to the fact that there is a greater period of accelerated growth in males, resulting in a larger increase in both size and thickness of the bones.

During puberty, protein is really important because this is when the speed of bone building increases – specifically in the areas of the spine and hips. A low protein diet will lower the action of a growth factor called IGF-1, which stimulates intestinal absorption of the bone minerals calcium and phosphate. Poor protein intake during this time may result in reduced bone development.

During growth the gain in bone mineral mass is mainly due to an increase in bone size and does not necessarily indicate change in bone density – which is the actual amount of bone tissue within the bones. Just because a youngster is growing tall, this does not mean that his or her bone mass is growing at a sufficient rate.

Girls are particularly vulnerable during the early teen years. Physically active young girls tend to gain about 40% more bone mass than inactive girls of the same age. The bone tissue accumulated between ages of 11 to 13 can actually equal the amount lost during the 30 years after menopause.

Unfortunately there are fashion pressures on girls to be thin – and the pursuit of the skinny body-image advertised in magazines can very negatively affect bone health in the long term. Obsession with thinness can lead to eating disorders such as anorexia which is highly detrimental to a girl’s skeleton.

Love life. Love your bones. And walk tall!

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only nonprofit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

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