Newly updated guidelines can help women decide when to have their bone density tested to determine their risk of fracture and perhaps get treatment that can lessen it. But the new guidelines may further discourage already reluctant men from doing the same.
The guidelines, issued by the United States Preventive Services Task Force, suggest that all women 65 and older undergo bone density screening, a brief, noninvasive, safe and inexpensive test covered by Medicare. It is called a DEXA scan. For women past menopause who are younger than 65, the guidelines say a scan may be appropriate depending on their risk factors for osteoporosis.
But for men, the task force said “current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for osteoporosis to prevent osteoporotic fractures.”
Not all experts on bone health agree. As I wrote in this column in October 2016, although men get “about half as many osteoporotic fractures as women, when a man breaks his hip because of osteoporosis, he is more likely than a woman similarly afflicted to be permanently disabled and twice as likely to die within a year.”
And thanks to the decline in smoking and progress in treating heart disease, many more men are now living long enough to experience a debilitating and perhaps deadly osteoporotic fracture. As Dr. Robert A. Adler, an endocrinologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Va., has written, it’s time to stop thinking of osteoporosis as just “a lady’s disease.”
With age, virtually everyone loses bone density, a process that typically starts at age 30 and accelerates rapidly in women past menopause who do not take supplemental estrogen. In men, who enter adulthood with thicker, stronger bones, bone loss in midlife is more gradual but often becomes medically significant after age 70.
“Osteoporosis causes bones to weaken and potentially break, which can lead to chronic pain, disability, loss of independence and even death,” the task force noted. Osteoporotic fractures are very common and extremely expensive. Nearly 44 million women and men 50 and older — more than half the people in that age bracket — have low bone density that increases their chances of breaking a bone from a minor accident, like tripping on the sidewalk or over the cat.
These so-called fragility, or low-trauma, fractures drain an estimated $20 billion a year from the United States economy, up from $17 billion in 2005, with a continued rise in the rate and cost predicted as the population ages. Men account for 29 percent of these fractures and 25 percent of the cost, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Bone Mineral Research.
Insurance coverage for bone density tests, both government and private, is typically based on the advice rendered by the Preventive Services Task Force, so it is helpful to know what the group recommends. But it can also help to know when it may be wise to circumvent these guidelines.