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Osteoporosis, a condition characterized by decreased bone strength, is prevalent among postmenopausal women but also occurs in men and women with underlying conditions or major risk factors associated with bone demineralization. Its chief clinical manifestations are vertebral and hip fractures, although fractures can occur at almost any skeletal site. Osteoporosis affects almost 10 million individuals in the United States, but only a small proportion are diagnosed and treated.


Osteoporosis is defined as a reduction in the strength of bone that leads to an increased risk of fractures. Loss of bone tissue is associated with deterioration in skeletal microarchitecture. The World Health Organization (WHO) operationally defines osteoporosis as a bone density that falls 2.5 standard deviations (SD) below the mean for young healthy adults of the same sex—also referred to as a T-score of –2.5. Postmenopausal women who fall at the lower end of the young normal range (a T-score <–1.0) are defined as having low bone density and are also at increased risk of osteoporosis. Although risk is lower in this group, more than 50% of fractures among postmenopausal women, including hip fractures, occur in this group with low bone density, because the number of individuals in this category is so much larger than that in the osteoporosis range. As a result, there are ongoing attempts to identify individuals within the low bone density range who are at high risk of fracture and might benefit from pharmacologic intervention. Furthermore, some have advocated using fracture risk as the “diagnostic” criterion for osteoporosis.


In the United States, as many as 9 million adults have osteoporosis (T-score <–2.5 in either spine or hip), and an additional 48 million individuals have bone mass levels that put them at increased risk of developing osteoporosis (e.g., bone mass T-score <–1.0). Osteoporosis occurs more frequently with increasing age as bone tissue is lost progressively. In women, the loss of ovarian function at menopause (typically about age 50) precipitates rapid bone loss so that most women meet the diagnostic criterion for osteoporosis by age 70–80. As the population continues to age, the number of individuals with osteoporosis and fractures will also continue to increase, despite a recognized reduction in age-specific risk. It is estimated that about 2 million fractures occur each year in the United States as a consequence of osteoporosis, and that number is expected to increase as the population continues to age.

The epidemiology of fractures follows the trend for loss of bone density, with exponential increases in both hip and vertebral fractures with age. Fractures of the distal radius have a somewhat different epidemiology, increasing in frequency before age 50 and plateauing by age 60, with only a modest age-related increase thereafter. In contrast, incidence rates for hip fractures double every 5 years after age 70 (Fig. 35-1). This distinct epidemiology may be related to the way the elderly fall as they age, with fewer falls on an outstretched hand and more falls directly on the hip. About 300,000 hip fractures occur each year in the United States, most of which require hospital admission and surgical intervention. The probability that a 50-year-old white individual will have a hip fracture during his or her lifetime is 14% for women and 5% for men; the risk for African Americans is lower (about one-half those rates), and the risk for Asians is roughly equal to that for whites. Hip fractures are associated with a high incidence of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism (20–50%) and a mortality rate between 5 and 20% during the year after surgery. There is also significant morbidity, with about 20–40% of survivors requiring long-term care, and many who are unable to function as they did before the fracture.


Epidemiology of vertebral, hip, and Colles’ fractures with age. (Adapted from C Cooper, LJ Melton III: Trends Endocrinol Metab 3:224, 1992; with permission.)

There are about 550,000 vertebral crush fractures per year in the United States. Only a fraction (estimated to be one-third) of them are recognized clinically, because many are relatively asymptomatic and are identified incidentally during radiography for other purposes (Fig. 35-2). Vertebral fractures ...

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