Osteoporosis Is A Childhood Disease
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | March 6, 2001

Osteoporosis is the progressive loss of bone mineral that results in weak bones, loss of height, and fractures. While there is a strong genetic component to osteoporosis, there is no question that lifestyle plays a role in the development of this disease. We think of osteoporosis as a disease of the aged, but it begins much earlier. How early? As early as childhood, as the title adapted from Dr. Charles Dent suggests (1).

Here's why. Bones are made up of mineral salts, primarily calcium salts, held in a matrix. Bone is laid down all through youth until a person reaches 25-28 years old. After that point, the amount of bone mineral lost exceeds the amount laid down. The rate at which a person loses bone mineral is the deciding factor if and when osteoporosis will occur. That's why it's important for children and young adults to build as much bone as possible early in life.

What builds strong bones? A good diet with an adequate intake of calcium and plenty of exercise. Determining the precise quantity of individual nutrients is difficult because of the interdependence of protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to bone health. Clearly, calcium is the most important mineral because it makes up the largest percentage of mineral content in bone. Phosphorous, magnesium, and vitamin D are also important to build strong bones. Weight-bearing exercise is important for building and sustaining healthy bones. Aerobic activity, such as running and aerobic dance, and weight training are great activities to help young women make strong bones.

What may be of greater importance is what contributes to the loss of bone mineral content early in life. Maintaining normal hormone levels is very important for young women, especially female athletes. When the body's fat content drops too low, hormone levels drop, and that leads to a loss of bone mineral content. And that early loss of bone mineral content may lead to osteoporosis at an earlier age. Women who smoke cigarettes are also at risk for developing osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. It is especially important for young women to never start smoking.

Adequate protein intake early in life is correlated with a higher bone mineral content, but some research has shown that excessive protein consumption can cause in increase in calcium excretion (2). However, 50 grams of protein (200 calories, or roughly one large chicken breast) only caused a loss of 60 mg of calcium, which can be easily made up by drinking one-quarter cup of fat-free milk or calcium-enriched orange juice. Drinking soda and coffee may be a risk factor for weak bones only because women drink them instead of liquids with a high calcium content—probably to save calories.

Where do boys and young men fit into this equation? Recent statistics have shown that 10% of all persons with osteoporosis are men. Teenage boys are typically more active and eat more total calories than teenage girls. When combined with exercise, the additional calories provide additional sources of nutrients to build strong bones. However, with television and computer games so prevalent, activity levels of teenage boys are down—potentially increasing the risk of osteoporosis later in life for this generation of boys.

The bottom line for healthy bones is to eat right and get sufficient exercise early in life. Research shows that the right lifestyle helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Fruits, vegetables, quality protein, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and a good source of calcium are the keys. While milk and yogurt are mainstays for most children and young adults, there are plenty of alternative sources of calcium such as enriched soymilk and orange juice. Nip this childhood disease in its infancy.


  1. Dent, C. Clinical Aspects of bone disease. Frame B and Duncan H, editors. Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica pp 1-7, 1973.
  2. Ilich JZ, Kerstetter JE. Nutrition In Bone Health Revisited: A Story Beyond Calcium. J Am Coll Nutr 19(6):715-37, 2000.
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