Pandemic could have far reaching effects on bone health, expert warns

There must be a stronger focus on prevention and more work must be done to educate and reorientate the way people think about bone health, according to Jane Barratt, secretary-general of the international federation of ageing. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Preventing osteoporosis in the EU.

The COVID pandemic may have far-reaching consequences on bone health, due to a combination of lack of physical activity and late diagnosis, according to Jane Barratt, secretary-general of the international federation of ageing.

“There is no question that COVID is having an impact on bone health, both in terms of delaying crucial early diagnosis of bone issues, but also the lack of day to day physical activity which could have a huge effect on bone health,” Barratt told EURACTIV.

She added that the effects of this will not be felt immediately, but in the years to come.

Highlighting the importance of prevention and promotion of bone health as an issue, she also raised concerns that, with economies reeling from the effects of the pandemic, bone health may not receive the attention that it merits.

“Investments in preventative measures as a percentage of GDP are already shamefully low,” she stated, adding that this is something that may only worsen as health care services come under strain and face budgetary cuts in the future.

This is despite the fact that bone fragility carries “devastating” consequences.

“Hip fractures are particularly devastating, and osteoporotic falls are increasing. This means people are not able to retain function, and require long term care which is both costly and means people are unable to live their lives the way they want,” she said, adding that there is simply not enough policy focus on the issue.

For example, in the EU alone, it is estimated that 22 million women and 5.5 million men suffer from the bone condition, resulting in 3.5 million fractures a year, which costs an estimated €37 billion, or around 3% of overall healthcare costs.

One of the biggest challenges is the perception that bone health is an issue of the elderly, rather than something to focus on the importance of bone health over the life course.

Osteoporosis prevention can start in the womb, says health expert

The narrative that osteoporosis is a natural consequence of ageing must be challenged and emphasis must be given to a smarter way of screening to reduce the risk of fracture and the associated costs, the president of the International Osteoporosis Foundation, told EURACTIV in an interview.

“We have to figure out a way to have a conversation about bone health which is separated from age,” she said, stressing that “chronological age is not the same as bone health age” and that bone health is strongly linked with what happens over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

As such, there must be a stronger focus on prevention and more work must be done to educate and reorientate the way people think about bone health.

In particular, she highlighted the role of intergenerational programmes, including more work done at the school level, to teach about nutrition and bones, as well as the importance of regular exercise in early age.

“We need to talk about the importance of bone health from an early age,” she stressed, adding that education programmes must take into account the fact that the level of health literacy varies within populations.

This more integrated approach to bone health is in line with the new way of thinking about growing older, as seen in the recently launched UN decade of healthy ageing 2021-2030, which focuses on the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.

Functional ability is about having the capabilities that enable all people to be and do what they have reason to value, Barratt explained, highlighting that bone health underpins the goals of the healthy ageing decade and, as such, should be placed high on the priority list.

“This new way of approaching healthy ageing is a great opportunity to raise the profile of bone issues, and this has to be reflected health investments in the future,” she said.

Broken bones, shattered lives: call for action as EU faces rise in osteoporosis

Despite the identification of clear, actionable steps in the prevention of fragility fractures and osteoporosis, EU policy action on the matter remains lacking as the situation is set to worsen.  But a new policy toolkit aims to help change this.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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