Sunshine: Bone of contention

Does a daily dose of sunshine really offer hope for the millions who suffer from osteoporosis? Alice-Azania Jarvis reports

On her blog last week, the Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow revealed that she "had the beginning stages if osteopenia" and has been advised to increase her vitamin D levels as a result. "My levels turned out to be the lowest they had ever seen," she claimed. "I went on prescription-strength levels and was told to spend a bit of time in the sun." It's a curious bit of advice; after all, the need to avoid exposure to ultraviolet rays is perhaps the most ubiquitous health message after that of not smoking. In fact, a moderate amount of sun-exposure can do a world of good – as Paltrow now knows only to well.

Rather than being a "disease" or "condition", osteopenia refers to a range of bone densities that are below average, but not as low as in osteoporosis, to which it's frequently seen as a likely precursor. A range of factors may lie behind the diagnosis; since our bones' renewal and repair slows with age, both conditions are most common in post-menopausal women and in elderly men with low levels of testosterone. In the UK, one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone mainly as a result of osteoporosis.

But the possibility of weak bones is by no means limited to the over-50s. So what can be done to prevent it? Genetic predisposition plays a significant role in determining who will have low bone density, as do lifestyle factors: heavy drinking, smoking and caffeine consumption are all best avoided. Low body weight, low-calcium diets or a history of eating disorders can contribute, too – as can excessive exercise and, more commonly, a sedentary lifestyle.

Much has been made of the link with low vitamin D after Paltrow's diagnosis – and, while not necessarily the overriding cause behind osteoporosis, it is, says Thomson, a common problem: "Vitamin D is a very important player and, yes, we get it from the sun. It's a very difficult message as we don't want to encourage people to get outside and fry, but 20 minutes on the hands and face in the summer months is a good thing."

Inevitably, living in cold climes, British women struggle with this more often that their southern-hemisphere counterparts: "In certain latitudes exposure is a lot more difficult. Whether that has a knock-on effect on osteopenia and osteoporosis has yet to be shown, but having the correct Vitamin D levels is definitely important."

Although it's advisable to adopt early avoidance techniques, specialists don't generally recommend bone density testing until later in life, since most medical treatments aren't licensed below certain ages. In Paltrow's case, her bone-scan followed surgery that she was undergoing at the time.

Once diagnosed, osteopenia is unlikely to be treated with drugs. Instead patients are advised to stick to a balanced diet and engage in regular weight-bearing exercises such as running, aerobics, skipping. All these are excellent preventive measures, too. If the condition progresses to full-blown osteoporosis, a range of treatments become available. Hormone replacement therapy used to be the favoured method, but in recent years there's been a shift towards phosphonate-based drugs.

Treatments have improved drastically in the past decade, leading to a notable enhancement in the quality of life for those diagnosed with osteoporosis. "We can reduce the risk of broken bones in osteoporosis patients by 50 per cent," says Thomson.

"The drugs particularly aim to prevent injury to the hip and spine. Halving the risk of bone fractures really is significant – there is a lot to be positive about."

The inside story

* Approximately three million people in the UK have osteoporosis, which means literally "porous bones".



* One in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone as a result – most commonly their wrist, hip or spinal bones.



* Diet can make an enormous difference to one's bone health. High calcium foods are particularly beneficial, including dairy, tofu, leafy green vegetables and tinned fish (sardines and anchovies).



* Vitamin D is vital to help the body absorb calcium. Oily fish, eggs and some liver as well as sufficient sunshine can all help with this.

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Life and Style
Men with beards rejoice: Your beard probably doesn't harbour faeces-like bacteria
health
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before