The importance of bone density testing for those at risk for osteoporosis is difficult to overstate.
Given the prevalence of osteoporosis and low bone density in Americans ages 50 and older, one out of every two women and one out of every four men are expected to fracture a bone during their lifetimes due to low bone mass.
For women, bone- density tests also contain important information about breast cancer risk.
The difference between the two is a matter of degree; low bone mass, also known as osteopenia, is diagnosed when a patient’s bone density is significantly lower than normal, which is considered a risk factor for fractures on its own, as well as for losing additional bone mass and facing even higher risks of fractures with full-blown osteoporosis.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control recommends bone density screening for all women age 65 and older, and for women age 50 or older who have certain risk factors including a parent who has broken a hip, early menopause, smoking, excessive alcohol use and low body weight.
Having high bone density, by itself, is a very good thing. But for older women, it can also indicate a higher risk of breast cancer through its link to increased estrogen levels.
Women’s higher risk for osteoporosis has been linked in part to the drop in estrogen women experience after menopause, while their lifetime risk for breast cancer has been linked to higher lifetime levels of the hormone.
Women older than 65 who are within the highest bone-mass category have a 62% higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer than those in the lowest category, researchers have found. Conversely, women whose breast cancer treatments included lowering their estrogen levels are at a heightened risk for osteoporosis.
Identifying women at higher risk of either disease is crucial for prevention and improved outcomes through more frequent screening, lifestyle changes and medication.
The sooner these begin the better, so women should ask their medical provider for more specific guidance about screening for either condition.