The most obvious signs of aging tend to be the ones we act on first. As the years pass, skin-smoothing lotions and potions pile up in the bathroom, and our workout shifts from high-impact to strength training. If you only focus on the signs of aging you can see, though, experts suggest you might be overlooking one essential aspect: your bones.
"Many people don't realize it, but our bodies are always breaking down our bones and rebuilding them little by little," explains Tiffany DeWitt, RD, MBA at Abbott. "When you're younger, your body can make new bone faster than it can break down old bone," but that changes as you age. After 35, bone mass begins to decline. What's more, women have lighter, thinner bones, which make us four times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis.
It might seem like an issue to dismiss until later in life, but bone expert Lani Simpson, DC, CCD, says that could have big consequences. "I had one woman last week who had four fractures in her spine after giving birth," she says. "This is a big deal."
Here's how your bones change with age and what every woman should do to protect them.
20s: Balance Your Diet
Growing up, bone health is a big deal. You're told to drink more milk and boost your calcium intake to build strong bones, so when you enter your 20s, it can seem like there's nothing more to do. "It's critical [when you're young] because 80% of lifetime bone density is laid down by the time we're 18," explains Simpson. "But if you're already past your teenage years, don't worry," DeWitt adds. "Your bone mass can keep increasing until around 30 when most people hit peak bone mass."
Given your 20s are when you start to forge lifestyle habits, now's the time to focus on diet. Dairy is a great source of calcium, but if you don't like yogurt, cheese, and milk, she recommends adding these bone-healthy foods to your diet:
- Dark, leafy vegetables, such as kale, collards, and broccoli
- Fish, such as halibut, mackerel, and salmon
- A variety of mushrooms, such as portabella and maitake (if exposed to UV light)
For those who want children, it's no secret that your body undergoes a lot of changes during pregnancy, but we were surprised to learn about what happens to your bones. "New moms and moms-to-be are often so busy juggling everything that their own health becomes a secondary priority—at a time when their health is more important than ever," says DeWitt.
If your diet is low in calcium, your baby might need the majority of those nutrients to develop bones, leaving you depleted. "Nutrient needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding are higher than almost any other time in a woman's life."
The solution? Supplement and speak to an expert. "It's so critical to take a prenatal supplement during pregnancy and to talk to your doctor about continuing it while breastfeeding," she says. "While calcium and vitamin D can help strengthen your bones in every stage of life, it's recommended that breastfeeding moms get 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D a day."
Pay special attention to your diet, too. "Pregnant women need to eat a full-on excellent diet and get enough vitamin D," Simpson adds. "I see too many cases of pregnancy osteoporosis where women are breaking their bones after giving birth. It needs to be taken seriously."
40s: Try Weight-Bearing Exercise
Spending the majority of your day sitting at a desk isn't just bad for weight gain; it can also be problematic for your bones. The issue is twofold. Spending too much time indoors limits the amount of vitamin D you absorb from sunlight. "Here's the thing with vitamin D: It increases calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus absorption by up to 50%. That's huge," says Simpson.
Exercise counts, too. "Getting regular exercise can help men and women hit greater peak bone mass, and after age 30, it can help prevent bone loss," says DeWitt. "Weight-bearing exercise, or exercise that makes your body work against gravity, is the best. Try jogging, weight training, or even taking the stairs to incorporate these activities into your everyday life."
50s: Speak to An Expert
Menopause is the next major milestone for bone health, Simpson explains. "Estrogen is known to protect against bone loss, so when menopause begins and the body stops producing the same levels of estrogen, bone loss can speed up and calcium absorption and retention can slow down."
Luckily, she suggests you don't need to make dramatic changes to counter the effects. "Women over 50 should get 1200 to 1500 mg of calcium a day versus 1000 mg for women under 50, so eating an extra yogurt or drinking a glass of milk can help you bridge that gap," she says. "If you're really worried about your calcium or vitamin D intake, talk to your doctor about a supplement in addition to eating a balanced diet."
Do you have children? How did you alter your diet when you were pregnant?