Most people don’t think about bone health until they’ve broken one or gotten to the age when bones become more fragile. But starting in midlife, everyone begins to lose bone mass. The good news? There are things you can do that support bone health and slow the rate of age-related bone loss. Here’s how.
Your bones are constantly changing
Bone is a living tissue made of protein, collagen and minerals, especially calcium. Every day, the bones in your body break down old or damaged bone tissue and rebuild with new, healthy tissue during a process called remodeling.
Bone remodeling is ongoing throughout your lifetime but occurs at different rates as you age.
- When you’re young, your body focuses on building bone mass — the amount of bone tissue in the skeleton — until it peaks around age 30.
- It’s important that children, adolescents and young adults build as much bone mass as possible with diet and lifestyle habits that support bone growth. The more bone you have “in the bank” by age 30, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis — a condition that causes bones to become weak.
- Bone remodeling continues after age 30, but the process focuses on maintenance, protection and prevention.
- By age 50 and beyond, people lose slightly more bone mass than they gain. This process speeds up as you age, especially for women when protective levels of estrogen decline throughout menopause.
How to build healthy bones and slow the rate of bone loss
There are things that you can do to help keep your skeleton strong. Getting enough key nutrients that support bone health is one factor.
Your bones store about 98% of the calcium in your body. This mineral is essential for building strong bones and keeping them healthy. During remodeling, your bones absorb and deposit calcium into new bone.
Your body can’t make calcium, so getting enough in your diet is important. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of calcium increases with age, more so for women.
- Adults age 19 to 50 and men ages 51 to 70 need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium daily.
- Women age 51 and older and men age 71 and older need 1,200 mg of calcium daily.
Your body doesn’t keep all the calcium you consume. Each day, it’s lost through your skin, nails, hair and body fluids. If you’re not consuming enough calcium, your body takes it from your bones, weakening them and putting you at risk of fractures and other health concerns.
Foods with calcium include:
- Milk and other dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt.
- Tuna, salmon and fish with bones, such as sardines.
- Plant-based options, including legumes and dark leafy greens like kale, broccoli or cabbage.
- Foods fortified with calcium. Examples include certain brands of juice, soy milk, grains and breakfast cereals.
About 72% of Americans obtain most of their calcium through dairy products. That’s partly because of the wide variety of dairy sources that are high in calcium.
Calcium is best absorbed by the body when consumed throughout the day in portions of 500 to 600 mg or less. Here’s an example of how you can extend your calcium intake throughout the day:
- Breakfast. Eat 1 cup of plain, low-fat yogurt (415 mg), or drink 1 cup of calcium-fortified orange juice (348 mg).
- Lunch. Eat 1 cup of 1% milk fat cottage cheese (138 mg). Add 1 cup of chopped raw kale (24 mg) to a salad.
- Dinner. Drink 1 cup of low-fat 1% milk (305 mg).
- Snack. Eat a 1/2 cup of frozen vanilla yogurt (103 mg) and an apple with skin (about 10 mg).
After calcium is absorbed from your digestive tract, it eventually makes its way to your bones where it is stored. But in order for that to happen, your body needs vitamin D. Vitamin D is the key that unlocks the door to let calcium into bones. Without it, the door remains locked.
Aim to consume 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D daily and increase to 800 IU if you are 71 or older. Dietary sources of vitamin D include:
- Oily fish such as trout, salmon, tuna and whitefish.
- Milk and other fortified dairy foods like yogurt, cottage cheese and cheese; fortified cereals; or fortified orange juice.
Obtaining enough vitamin D from dietary sources can be difficult. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that most people obtain less than 400 IU of vitamin D daily from dietary sources. Sunlight contributes to your body’s production of vitamin D, but dietary sources offer a way to get vitamin D without sun exposure.
Protein is important for bone health and growth. Collagen, for example, is a protein that provides flexibility for bones to resist breaking. As you age, you naturally produce less collagen. Foods with specific amino acids that support collagen production include milk, Parmesan cheese, legumes and bone broth. Foods with vitamin C like citrus and peppers can also help with collagen formation.
Dietary sources of protein include:
- Meat, poultry or eggs.
- Milk, Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.
- Beans, peas or lentils.
The amount of protein you need depends on your age, weight, activity level and other factors. In general, most adults should aim for 5 to 6 ounces of protein a day.
Fruits and vegetables
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to keep your bones healthy. They provide important nutrients like magnesium, potassium and vitamin K — all necessary for healthy and strong bones.
Sometimes it can be hard to get the nutrients you need from diet alone. If you find it difficult to get enough calcium, vitamin D or other nutrients, talk to your healthcare professional about your specific needs and supplement options.
Lifestyle habits that keep you and your bones healthy
Healthy lifestyle habits can help slow the natural decline of bone density, which causes bones to become weaker and susceptible to fractures.
- Add physical activity. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jogging and climbing stairs can help you build strong bones and slow bone loss.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If your body weight is very low, you’ll have less bone mass to draw from as you age, increasing your risk of bone loss and fractures. Excess body weight may also compromise your bone health and increase your risk of fractures.
- Limit caffeine. High levels of caffeine can cause you to lose calcium in your urine.
- Quit smoking. Tobacco use can also cause loss of bone density and result in weaker bones.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Chronic alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and may disrupt the body’s vitamin D production. For healthy adults, moderate drinking means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
Building strong bones and protecting your bone mass as you age may be easier than you think. But if you’re concerned about your bone health, your risk factors for fractures or osteoporosis, talk with your healthcare professional.