Machine Tests Bone Density

Your bones are one of those things you probably don't think about very much when you're young, unless you break something. But as you get older, your bone health comes into sharper focus, particularly for women. Osteoporosis isn't usually listed as the cause of death in the elderly, but it can be a huge contributing factor, and brittle bones can rob you of your ability to get out and enjoy life. You may not be able to halt the progress of bone loss altogether, but there's a lot you can do to slow it down once it starts. Betty Jo Zachmeier will be 80 in January, and she loves to spend time traveling and enjoying retirement with husband Roger. But, her chance to do that could have been cut short by osteoporosis.

(Betty Jo Zachmeier, Osteoporosis Patient):  "My doctor sent me for a bone scan because he suspected it.”

(Monica):  Her doctor was right. The scan showed she had osteoporosis. That was ten years ago. Like many women her age, Betty Jo wasn't all that active in her youth.

(Betty Jo):  "I probably didn't exercise enough.”

(Monica):  Girls sports weren't offered at her school, and even if they had been, she had a leaky valve in her heart that kept her from vigorous exercise. And as an adult, her work always kept her at a desk. When she hit 70, she had her first Dexascan, and started medication to put a stop to her bone loss. And it worked. Her condition has improved. Dexascan is a part of her regular health maintenance.

(Betty Jo):  "There's nothing to it," she says. "I go every two years and they check to make sure it's not getting worse. You don't even have to undress."

(Monica):  The test itself is fast and painless. Healthy people add bone mass until they are around 20 years old. Strong bones are built through a good diet that includes adequate amounts of calcium along with vitamin D, heredity and regular exercise, particularly weight bearing exercise, because that's the type that builds bones up. Medications can also play a role in thinning bones. And some people's bones are simply more dense than others. After age 20, it's about hanging onto the bone you have and at a certain point, bone loss begins.

(Dr. Lisa Francis, St. Alexius Rheumatologist):  "Initially it's slow, but when you reach menopause, it's more rapid.”

(Monica):  She says it's a big problem for some women.

(Dr. Francis):  "Women are more prone as they go through child bearing, as they go through menopause. Common sites are the spine, hip joint, so that's where they scan."

(Monica):  The Dexascan itself uses very little radiation. The scanner produces two X-ray beams. One is high energy, the other low. As the two x-ray beams pass through the bone, the scanner measures the bone thickness. Osteoporosis tends to impact the entire body, but the areas most typically scanned are the hip and spine. If you find brittle bones here, it's likely that you'll find them elsewhere. And occasionally, the tech will also scan the forearm. A scan like this one can pick up osteopenia, or low bone mass, or osteoporosis, bones that are actually porous. The proper treatment depends on the severity of the bone loss. Betty was on a bone-building drug for four years, and it had a positive effect. Though she'll always need regular scans, but so far things look good. She says she feels blessed that she's had the option of stopping her osteoporosis in its tracks.

(Betty Jo):  "I wanted to travel," she says. "I didn't want to fall and break a hip and be in a wheelchair."

Instead, she's busy planning her next adventure.

Monica Hannan, Reporting