World Osteoporosis Day: 10 million Americans unnecessarily suffer from the pain

World Osteoporosis Day: 10 million Americans unnecessarily suffer from the pain
© Getty Images

For many seniors otherwise in good health, a hip fracture resulting from osteoporosis, or weak bones, can dramatically change their lives. In fact, more women die in the year following a hip fracture than they do from breast cancer. It is a staggering statistic, especially when you consider that hip fractures are largely avoidable. 

In the U.S., a startling 80 percent of women and men over the age of 50 who break a bone are never tested for osteoporosis, which could be the underlying cause of their fracture. This is scary, considering once you have an osteoporotic fracture, studies show the likelihood of breaking another bone increases three to five times. The impact of even one broken bone can be devastating.

ADVERTISEMENT

Dorothea, an 89-year-old grandmother, lived on her own in Lake Worth, Fla. for years. She has osteoporosis that was undiagnosed and untreated. Last year, she fell and broke her hip while getting out of bed.  Given the mortality statistics on hip fractures, Dorothea is one of the lucky ones, but her life has been permanently altered.

After a lengthy hospital stay, she spent months in a rehab facility. Once an active, independent woman, Dorothea now needs a wheelchair to get around and must rely on family and caregivers for assistance.  Early diagnosis and treatment could have made a difference for her. Dorothea’s story is all too common for osteoporosis patients. 

Today is World Osteoporosis Day, a time to highlight the 10 million Americans, like Dorothea, who suffer unnecessarily from the pain of osteoporosis and to recognize that more needs to be done to combat the rising prevalence of the disease. 

Twenty-five percent of women over the age of 50 who sustain a hip fracture die in the year following the fracture while 50 percent never walk independently again and 20 percent require permanent nursing home placement. Broken bones are not an inevitable consequence of aging.

Osteoporosis is preventable and can be managed and treated through routine screenings and care. Early diagnosis is critical and a perfect illustration of how a simple and proven health screening can save lives. The effective, non-invasive screening tool is called a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) or bone density test. This test is more accurate in predicting fractures than cholesterol is in predicting heart attacks or blood pressure is in predicting strokes.

Unfortunately, the percentage of people tested for osteoporosis has declined significantly since 2009 following a dramatic decline in the reimbursement rate for the test. A 70 percent Medicare DXA payment cut has wiped out a decade of osteoporosis prevention efforts resulting in fewer women being tested and fewer providers offering DXA or bone density testing.

Dr. Marion Cash, a board-certified family physician for over 38 years in Louisiana, has seen the impact of these reimbursements cuts first-hand. Recognizing the effect of osteoporosis on his older patients, his office purchased a DXA machine.

Today, his practice is “considering discontinuing this service, which we have provided in-house to make access easy for patients and ensuring that experts interpret the results. We simply cannot afford to continue paying for the machine.”

Dr. Cash is not alone in his situation in Louisiana. There has been a 20 percent decline in DXA providers since 2008 and a 15 percent decline in DXA testing among women in the state.  There were an estimated 845 additional hip fractures in Louisiana because of this reduction in screenings and more than 184 deaths. Our mothers and our grandmothers deserve better.

While we once had prompt diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis, we now have elderly patients suffering from more common bone fractures and, in many instances, death from their complications. It is time to reverse this frightening trend. Women’s health across the country has been jeopardized by Medicare’s shortsighted policy on bone health.

We have the tools necessary to prevent these fractures with early detection and treatment.  With fewer providers offering these screenings, more seniors are going to end up like Dorothea, or worse. On World Osteoporosis Day ask your elected officials to make bone health a priority and support access to bone density testing as a critical preventive screening tool for seniors.

Claire Gill is chief mission officer at the National Osteoporosis Foundation, a health organization dedicated to preventing osteoporosis and broken bones. Gill is responsible for NOF’s patient and professional education, advocacy and public relations.