Sometimes, people assume that osteoporosis only strikes postmenopausal women, but in reality, there is a wide range of risk factors that might make you more prone to having low bone density or osteoporosis. If your primary healthcare provider believes that you’re at risk for low bone density, or believes that a test is necessary to help assess the state of your bone health, they will write you a referral for a DEXA scan.
Your doctor will likely be basing this decision on criteria such as those of the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). The NOF suggests a bone density scan if:
- You’re a postmenopausal woman.
- You’re a man over 70.
- You’re an adult with a fragility fracture.
- You are noticeably losing height (this is a sign of bone loss).
So, what’s the menopause connection? Women experience a sharp drop in their estrogen levels at menopause, and that hormonal change correlates with bone loss and low bone density. The longer her estrogen level is low, the greater the bone loss. That’s also true of women who experience early menopause, so before their mid-40s, or experience irregular ovulation.
People in these demographics are at a greater risk of osteoporosis, which is why you may be referred for a DEXA scan. However, bone density varies a lot from person to person. Factors like diet, smoking, body weight and even your kidney and thyroid health can affect your bone density, which is why you should rely on your primary healthcare provider’s recommendations for you. Once you have your first test, you’ll find out how dense your bones are, which is measured by your T-score.
Understanding Your T-Score
T-scores for bone density measurement start at one and count down to the negative numbers. That means:
- Anything between -1 and one is average. If you’re in the positives, congratulations — you have strong bones.
- -1 to -2.5 is low bone density, also known as osteopenia.
- -2.5 or lower is osteoporosis.
It’s important to remember that having a low T-score (i.e. low bone density) doesn’t mean that you’ll ever develop osteoporosis. In fact, if you have low bone density but you live a healthy lifestyle — you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with high-calcium foods like dairy and healthy fish like salmon for vitamin D — you could have healthy bones well into your golden years. However, this scan is an important benchmark. It’s good to know if you have weak bones, osteopenia, or osteoporosis sooner rather than later, so you can take steps toward improving your bone health.
Making a Plan for Healthy Bones Moving Forward
If you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, those steps could include taking bone density medication. Tracking your T-score over time also lets your healthcare provider know if your bone health is improving or deteriorating. That can indicate whether or not your medication is working, or what additional precautions should be taken to avoid breaking a bone. If you’re on bone medication, you’ll likely start doing “check-up” scans every one to two years just to make sure everything is fine.
People in certain demographics should likely be on a regular schedule of check-up scans. These groups include:
- People on osteoporosis medicine, who should get a scan every one to two years.
- Women with severe osteopenia, who should be scanned annually.
- Moderate-risk women, who should get a scan every five years.
- Low-risk women, who can wait 5-10 years between scans.
However, if you have other risk factors, your doctor might set a schedule for you that are different. It depends on the overall state of your health, as well as your lifestyle and health history.
DEXA Scans Offer a Bone Health Benchmark
Being referred for a DEXA scan doesn’t mean you have osteoporosis — it just means your doctor wants to check the state of your bone health and see how you’re doing. If your bones are fine, you may not have to come back for as long as 15 years. Even having a low T-score doesn’t mean you have osteoporosis; you can have low-density bones and still have a completely healthy, normal life. What this scan offers is a benchmark so that you and your doctor can make a plan together for a healthy future for your bones.
At Reno Diagnostic Centers, we’re committed to our patients’ health and want to keep you in the loop about how DEXA scans contribute to your health. We provide comprehensive medical imaging services for the Reno community. Contact us to learn more.