Newly updated guidelines can help women decide when to have a bone density tested to determine their risk of fracture and perhaps get treatment that can lessen it. Pics: CHIARA ZARMATI, New York Times

Newly updated guidelines can help women decide when to have a 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 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, suggest that all women 65 and older undergo bone density screening, a brief, noninvasive, safe test.

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. 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, Virginia, has written, it is 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.

Few question the value of bone density screening for women 65 and older, with timely repetitions of the exam determined by the initial results. The test is painless and noninvasive, and involves a level of radiation 50 times lower than that of a mammogram, Dr. Margaret L. Gourlay, research associate professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, said.

There is also solid evidence that treatment with a bone-preserving or bone-building drug is beneficial when a bone density test reveals a level of bone loss defined as osteoporosis in the spine or a hip.

“Bone density testing also has a place for women younger than 65,” Gourlay said. The question is, for which women and how often should it be done? The task force concluded that the need for an initial test is best determined by first examining a woman’s risk factors, a process that Gourlay said could consume half the time of a typical doctor visit.

There are three such screening tools currently available.

Gourlay said if you are past menopause and thin, consider getting your bone density checked. The lower your weight, the less benefit weight-bearing activities like walking will have on the strength of your bones. Also, women who lose weight by dieting lose bone along with fat and may consider getting checked for bone density, Gourlay said.

Jane A. Cauley, epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who also wrote an editorial about the task force report, said said she was “disappointed” that the task force issued no recommendations for testing men. “Men age 70 and older who have a high probability of an osteoporotic fracture based on any one of the assessment tools should get a bone density scan,” she said. “One in 5 men will experience an osteoporotic fracture, and bone density screening is warranted if the risk is relatively high given that there is a good screening method and effective treatment for bone loss.”

New York Times