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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 August 2006, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
'I had a silent killer and I didn't know'
By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Stella Nicholson
Stella was unaware she had osteoporosis
Stella Nicholson is well aware of the dangers of breast cancer.

Most women now know that as many as one in nine women are affected by the disease and that their risk grows with age.

They know that regular self-checking and mammograms are important and that the earlier you spot a lump the better your chance of treating it.

What Stella, aged 84, did not know however, is that as many women today die as a result of the crumbling bone condition osteoporosis, as of breast cancer.

Fractures

A silent killer - it creeps up on both women and men. Often their first signs are a broken bone - most worryingly of all a fractured hip, which can kill.

Studies show that 20% of women who suffer a hip fracture die within the next 12 months.

It can be a silent killer. You don't know you have it and your hip can break, leaving you immobile
Stella Nicholson

But despite the fact that half of women over the age of 50 will suffer a bone fracture, only 4% say they worry about developing osteoporosis, compared to 56% who fear cancer.

This is why the Alliance for Better Bone Health has launched its Act Now Protect the Future Guide to tell women about how they can save their bones.

Stella, from near Nottingham, knew nothing about the condition and was unaware that she was at risk.

It was during surgery for a triple heart bypass, six years ago, that doctors noticed Stella's crumbling bones.

"When the surgeon cut through my sternum he noticed that it had crumbled," said Stella.

"They told me I had osteoporosis and I said, 'What is that?'

"It can be a silent killer. You don't know you have it and your hip can break, leaving you immobile. You can then get pneumonia and then you die.

"The last thing I want is a fractured hip. I couldn't manage and would have to go into a home."

Bones

Luckily, Stella's problems were spotted and she takes a regular bisphosphonate to protect her bones.

She has now learnt more about the condition and knows that regular exercise throughout life can help to build bone mass.

She has passed on the advice to her daughter Janet, aged 50 and ice-dancing enthusiast granddaughter Bryony.

"I am so pleased to see my granddaughter taking such an active interest in her diet and participating in activities which will really strengthen her bones.

"Hopefully she won't develop osteoporosis and be at risk of suffering hip fractures like me."

Consultant rheumatologist Dr Richard Keen, who is based at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, said people were unaware of the risks of the disease and how to protect themselves.

"What we are hoping to do is to raise awareness. We want to make people aware about what to eat and as they grow older to become aware of the risks of a fractured hip.

As many people die from a fractured hip as die from breast cancer
Richard Keen

"We want to tell people how they can protect their bones from early childhood through.

"As many people die from a fractured hip as die from breast cancer."

Risk

Dr Dawn Harper, a GP specialising in women's health from Stroud, Gloucestershire, said there are currently about 3 million people with the condition in the UK - it affects one in three women and one in 12 men over the age of 50.

This number, warns Dr Harper, will probably rise as the population ages. But she said that despite the numbers affected many were still unaware of their risk.

"Most women are breast aware and know about looking after their hearts, but they are not bone aware.

Dr Richard Keen
People need to be aware of the osteoporosis risk

"There is a common misconception that you will get a warning sign, but this is a silent condition. You get no warnings until you get a broken bone.

"It is a major condition, but there is so much can be done. We can prevent the broken bones from happening."

She said women with a family history of the disease; smokers, those whose periods have stopped for any reason other than pregnancy and anorexics were all at a greater risk and so needed to get checked out.

"You are never too young to start thinking about your bones and building them up.

"From your 20s through thirties you are building up your bones and after you hit the menopause you are more at risk. So make sure you are doing healthy exercise."




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