Help protect your bones after 65: A 3-step plan

To help prevent falls and safeguard your bone mass, older adults need to think beyond milk

Lauren Bedosky
Older man and woman lifting dumbbells.

Our bones weaken as we get older. But don’t be alarmed: “This age-related bone loss is normal,” says Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the school of public health at the University of Michigan. 

What can be alarming, however, is how quickly your bones can weaken if you’re not taking care of them, she adds. And as bone strength goes down, your risk of osteoporosis (low bone mass) goes up. Coupled with the age-related increased risk of falls, this creates a greater possibility of serious injuries.

To help give your bones better protection, follow this three-step plan. 

Step #1: Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Your bones are constantly shedding old bone cells and laying down new ones. “We want to make sure that the new bone being laid down is strong and mineralized,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez. The best way to do that is to eat foods that are rich in key vitamins and minerals — namely, calcium and vitamin D. 

Calcium and vitamin D are a power couple: Calcium is critical for building bone, but you need to get enough vitamin D in order to absorb the mineral and make use of it. 

Milk, yogurt and cheese are obvious food choices, but if dairy causes you digestive issues, there are plenty of other foods that will provide the nutrients you need. Greens like kale, broccoli and turnip greens offer calcium, as well as other bone-building nutrients like vitamins K and C. Meanwhile, fish, seeds and nuts provide vitamin D and magnesium, another mineral that keeps bones healthy. 

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Get your next checkup right at home — for free

UnitedHealthcare® HouseCalls brings yearly check-in care to you in your own home. You’ll get a physical exam, health screenings and plenty of time to talk about your health questions with a licensed medical practitioner.

To learn more and confirm if you are eligible, call 1-800-934-0280, TTY 711, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. ET, 5 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. PT. or click here.

However, it can be tricky to get enough vitamin D through diet alone, “unless you’re being very deliberate about it,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez. Keep an eye on how much vitamin D you’re getting through foods. Aim for at least 600 International Units (IUs) a day if you’re under 70 and 800 IUs a day if you’re 70 or older. If you struggle to get enough, talk to your doctor about adding a vitamin D supplement to your diet, Karvonen-Gutierrez says. 

Step #2: Start strength training

To help keep your bones strong and reduce your risk of falls, it’s important to stay active. Aerobic activities like walking are great for building overall mobility and fitness. But they won’t challenge your bones enough to encourage growth, says Antonia Chen, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

That’s where strength training comes in. Strength training (aka resistance training) is a weight-bearing exercise that spurs new bone growth, says Karvonen-Gutierrez. “When we put force on the bone, it stimulates our bone to mineralize and become stronger,” she explains.

Keep up your regular routine, adds Dr. Chen, but be sure to include at least two days of strength training per week. You can lift weights or stick to bodyweight exercises. Learn more about the health benefits of strength training and find simple exercises to try here

If you have joint issues, modify the exercises as needed so you don’t experience discomfort or pain. “Some people say ‘push through the pain,’ but that’s a bad idea,” says Dr. Chen. If you need help finding a safe and effective exercise routine for your bones, work with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer who specializes in training older adults.

Ask about fall prevention during your Annual Wellness Visit  

This yearly exam is a good opportunity to ask your provider to assess your fall risk. To get the most out of the visit, follow these steps: 

  1. Schedule your appointment. If you need help finding a network provider, our online search tools can help. Sign in to your plan website and click on Find Care. 
  2. Download your Annual Care Checklist. Use this list of health topics to get the conversation started with your provider. Go to the Health & Wellness section of your plan website and type Annual Care Checklist into the search bar. 
  3. Call Customer Service if you have questions. Our team is here for you 7 days a week. Call the number on the back of your member ID card. Not a member? Learn more here.

Step #3: Team up with your doctor

Your doctor or health care provider is an important ally for keeping your bones healthy. They can help you figure out if you have any risk factors for osteoporosis or fractures. Your family health history, sex (women have a higher risk of bone loss than men), age, activity level, diet and body weight (especially low body weight) can all affect your bone health, according to Karvonen-Gutierrez. Be ready to review all of these points with them.

Some health conditions and medications can also increase your risk for osteoporosis or fractures. For example, anti-inflammatory medications like prednisone, which is used to treat conditions like arthritis, severe allergies and immune disorders, can cause bones to break down over time. If you’re taking these or other medications that weaken bones, your doctor can help you figure out how to counteract that loss. 

Meanwhile, other medications can cause side effects like dizziness and nausea, which may increase your risk of a fall. In that event, talk to your doctor about how to reduce those effects. “We really don’t want medications to be a reason that someone falls,” says Karvonen-Gutierrez. 

At your next doctor visit, the National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests asking your doctor the following: 

  • Do I have any risk factors for osteoporosis or fractures?
  • How much calcium and vitamin D should I be getting every day?
  • Could any of my medications cause bone loss?
  • Do I have a medical condition that could cause bone loss?
  • Do I need a bone mineral density (BMD) test? (Or, if you’ve had one, what do my BMD results mean?)
  • How can I prevent falls?

Get your next checkup right at home — for free

You’ll get a physical exam, screening tests and more from UnitedHealthcare® HouseCalls. To learn more and confirm if you are eligible, call 1-800-934-0280, TTY 711, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. ET, 5 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. PT. or click here.