While watching the local news yesterday morning, I was shocked to learn that the condition of osteoporosis is becoming more prevalent in children. One factor that has been implicated is the increase in childhood obesity. The newscast stated that the extra body fat slows the absorption of Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. The body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium, which helps build strong bones.
Osteoporosis is defined as “porous bone.” Under a microscope, healthy bone resembles a honeycomb. When osteoporosis is present, structural changes have occurred in the bone that make the holes and spaces of the honeycomb structure much larger. As a result, the bone becomes less dense, weaker, and more susceptible to fracture. Osteoporosis is a condition that is typically seen in older women and, in the past, it was rare to be present in children – unless it was related to an underlying medical disorder or by certain medications (this form is called secondary osteoporosis).
Regardless of the cause of osteoporosis in children, its presence is a great concern because the prime years to build bone occur in childhood. Bone is living tissue that constantly breaks down and rebuilds throughout life. This process involves calcium to be withdrawn and deposited into your bones daily. The strength of your bones depends upon the amount of calcium stored in them. Typically, in children and teenagers, new bone is formed faster than it is broken down. Thus, the bones continue to become more dense until peak bone mass (the greatest amount of bone that you will have in your lifetime) is achieved. An individual’s peak bone mass is reached around the ages of 18-20 years, depending on gender.
What can a parent do to help their child/teen build healthy bones?
- Teach your child and/or teenager the importance of eating a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D fortified foods to promote bone health. Some good websites to visit with your child to reinforce this lesson include: Milk Matters; KidsHealth; and, Best Bones Forever!. These sites offer activities, games, and fun ideas to engage children and teenagers in the learning process for adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
- Provide your child and/or teenager with a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D fortified foods. Some sources of calcium and vitamin D include low-fat dairy products, green leafy vegetables, canned salmon with bones, calcium enriched soy drinks, and fortified cereals. For a list of more food sources, visit Best Bones Forever!.
- Ensure that your child gets at least 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a day to promote vitamin D synthesis in the body. Note that very few food sources naturally contain vitamin D and, therefore, sun exposure is needed to reach adequate levels.
- Teach your child the ill effects of smoking. Smoking impairs bone health. Research has shown that smokers have a higher incidence of bone fractures.
- Get your child active. Weight-bearing activities, such as dancing, gymnastics, basketball, and running help to build bone strength.
- Schedule regular “well-check” visits with your child’s pediatrician. The doctor will be able to monitor dietary and exercise habits as well as growth. Because other conditions such as anorexia, hormonal imbalances, and certain medications can increase your child’s risk for weak bones and fractures, it is important to see your child’s physician who will be able to identify these conditions and offer advice on their treatment and management.
Does your child get enough calcium and vitamin D? Share with us your ways of ensuring your child eats a diet rich in these sources. We want to know!