You probably think of osteoporosis as a disease suffered only by older, postmenopausal women. But, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), this well-known bone disorder affects approximately 10 million Americans — including 2 million men. NOF statistics indicate that after age 50 one in four men and one in two women will suffer an osteoporotic fracture resulting from porous and weak bones. Cindy Powell, MPT, outpatient physical therapy coordinator at Ashland Community Hospital in Ashland, Oregon, attributes the rising numbers of osteoporosis sufferers to decreased nutrient values in food, sedentary lifestyles, and increased stress due to environmental toxicity and lifestyle.

In fact, I watched my 81-year-old father suffer from this debilitating disease, which took a foot off his height and resulted in femur and hip fractures that eventually led to his death. I wondered what my future would hold, since I already suffered from osteopenia, or low bone mass. Although it's normal to lose some bone mass as you age, it's not normal to get osteoporosis, according to the NOF. Even if you heed bone-health basics — such as performing weight-bearing exercise and taking calcium supplements — you may need to do more. Here are some of the most common bone-health pitfalls and how to nurture naturally stronger bones.

  1. PROBLEM» Focusing on calcium, but missing other micronutrients

    In today's fast-paced culture it's hard to get major bone-building nutrients from food alone, says Carol Dalton, a former nurse practitioner and osteoporosis specialist in Greeley, Colorado. And calcium and magnesium are only part of the bone-health equation.

    What you can do» Depending on your age, you should get 1,000-1,500 mg of calcium per day, and about 300-500 mg magnesium. Because it's difficult to get those amounts from your diet, most people need supplementation, says Dalton. But don't stop there: Make sure your multivitamin contains at least 3 mg boron, 2 mg manganese, 20 mg zinc, and 100 mcg vitamin K. If not, consider additional supplements.

  2. PROBLEM» Low vitamin D levels

    According to the latest research, vitamin D deficiency may be much more common than we think. Vitamin D has two important functions: First, it helps the digestive system absorb calcium, and second, it supports the parathyroid, a gland that regulates the amount of calcium in the blood. When vitamin D levels are low, the parathyroid malfunctions, causing lowered calcium levels in the bloodstream, which can lead to bone loss. People with limited sun exposure or low vitamin D intake are more at risk than others.

    What you can do» Vitamin D is naturally available in fatty fish, egg yolks, and liver. To make sure you're getting enough, the NOF recommends adults under 50 supplement with 400-800 IU of vitamin D3 daily, and 800-1,000 IU after age 50. However, according to Jenny Slawta, PhD, an associate professor of exercise physiology at Southern Oregon University, in Ashland, “1,000 IU per day may be too little for people who live farther from the equator or have difficulty absorbing vitamin D; 4,000-5,000 IU may be necessary.”

  3. PROBLEM» An acid-forming diet

    Without knowing it, most of us consume diets high in acid-forming foods. Large amounts of animal protein (meat), saturated fat, and phosphoric acid (soft drinks), combined with low intakes of fruit and vegetables contribute to an acidic system and the potential for osteoporosis, says Susan E. Brown, PhD, director of the Osteoporosis Education Project. Here's how: Your blood is slightly alkaline and all of your body's chemical processes do best in an alkaline environment (pH of 7.35-7.45), but this environment is affected by the foods you eat. In addition to those foods mentioned above, grains, fish, poultry, shellfish, cheese, milk, and salt all produce acid. Eating them promotes the loss of essential minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium, as the body tries to restore an alkaline environment — and the resulting mineral loss weakens bones.

    What you can do» Most fresh vegetables create an alkaline base, particularly dark green leafy vegetables, onions, sweet potatoes, yams, and celery. Alkaline-forming fruits include limes, raspberries, pineapples, grapefruits, and lemons (yes, citrus are generally alkaline-forming, despite their acid content). Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables also provides bone-building micronutrients.

  4. PROBLEM» Getting exercise — but not enough of the right kind

    When it comes to bones and exercise, “use it or lose it” rings true. The mechanical forces that act on bones and muscle during exercise stimulate bone growth. Despite their cardiovascular benefits, low-impact exercises such as swimming and walking do not put enough pressure on bones to stimulate bone growth.

    What you can do» Two to three times a week, perform higher-intensity, load-bearing exercise. Focus on strength and impact exercises such as jumping, lunging, squatting, climbing stairs, and working out with weights while standing, says Slawta. Exercise DVDs make it easy, or hire a fitness trainer to help you develop a bone-building routine.

BONE BUILDING: BEHIND THE SCENES

At a cellular level, your bones are construction sites with two kinds of crews: builders and demolishers. The builders are the osteoblasts, cells that form new bone by hardening collagen with minerals. The demolishers are osteoclasts, cells that dissolve bone and release minerals back into the blood. In healthy bones, the crews work in harmony. But when the demolishers become more active than the builders, more bone is dissolved than rebuilt. The result is bone loss.

BONES BY AGE

The prime bone-building years are between ages 11 and 14. About 85 percent to 90 percent of adult bone mineral density (BMD) is acquired by age 18 in girls and age 20 in boys. Sometime between ages 20 and 30, our bones are at their strongest. After this peak, the rate of bone formation and breakdown remain equal until around age 50 in women and age 60 in men. Then bone starts to break down faster than it forms. Bottom line: The stronger your bones are at age 30, the more delayed your bone loss will be as you age.

Weigh your options: Learn about weight training for bone health.