Typically, when parents think about their children's health, they don't think about their bones. But building healthy bones by adopting healthy nutritional and lifestyle habits in childhood is important to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures later in life.
Osteoporosis, the disease that causes bones to become less dense and more prone to fractures, has been called "a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," because the bone mass attained in childhood and adolescence is an important determinant of lifelong skeletal health. The health habits your kids are forming now can make, or literally break, their bones as they age.
Why Is Childhood Such an Important Time for Bone Development?
Bones are the framework for your child's growing body. Bone is living tissue that changes constantly, with bits of old bone being removed and replaced by new bone. You can think of bone as a bank account, where (with your help) your kids make "deposits" and "withdrawals" of bone tissue. During childhood and adolescence, much more bone is deposited than withdrawn as the skeleton grows in both size and density.
For most people, the amount of bone tissue in the skeleton (known as bone mass) peaks by their late twenties. At that point, bones have reached their maximum strength and density. Up to 90 percent of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and age 20 in boys, which makes youth the best time for your kids to "invest" in their bone health.
Building your children's "bone bank" account is a lot like saving for their education: The more they can put away when they're young, the longer it should last as they get older.
What Is Osteoporosis? Isn't It Something Old People Get?
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become fragile and break easily. When someone has osteoporosis, it means his/her "bank account" of bone tissue has dropped to a low level. If there is significant bone loss, even sneezing or bending over to tie a shoe can cause a bone in the spine to break. Hips, ribs, and wrist bones also break easily. The fractures from osteoporosis can be painful and disfiguring. There is no cure for the disease.
Osteoporosis is most common in older people but can also occur in young and middle-aged adults. Optimizing peak bone mass and developing lifelong healthy bone behaviors during youth are important ways to help prevent or minimize osteoporosis risk as an adult.
Factors Affecting Peak Bone Mass
Peak bone mass is influenced by a variety of factors: some that you can't change, like gender and race, and some that you can, like nutrition and physical activity.
Gender: Bone mass or density is generally higher in men than in women. Before puberty, boys and girls develop bone mass at similar rates. After puberty, however, boys tend to acquire greater bone mass than girls.
Race: For reasons still not well understood, African American girls tend to achieve higher peak bone mass than Caucasian girls, and African American women are at lower risk for osteoporosis later in life. More research is needed to understand the differences in bone density between the various racial and ethnic groups. However, because all women, regardless of race, are at significant risk for osteoporosis, girls of all races need to build as much bone as possible to protect them against this disease.
Hormonal factors: Sex hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, are essential for the development of bone mass. Girls who start to menstruate at an early age typically have greater bone density. Those who frequently miss their menstrual periods sometimes have lower bone density.
Nutritional status: Calcium is an essential nutrient for bone health. In fact, calcium deficiencies in young people can account for a 5- to 10-percent lower peak bone mass and may increase the risk for bone fracture in later life. A well-balanced diet including adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and vitamin D is also important for bone health.
Physical activity: Physical activity is important for building healthy bones, and provides benefits that are most pronounced in the areas of the skeleton that bear the most weight. These areas include the hips during walking and running and the arms during gymnastics and weight lifting.