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There's No Excuse Now to Ignore Bone Testing

October 12, 1995|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Last week the Food and Drug Administration approved Fosamax, the first non-hormonal treatment of osteoporosis. With other medications on the horizon, an emerging issue is how to make the best use of bone mineral density testing, which can diagnose osteoporosis or even a woman's risk for it. Here, a closer look at osteoporosis.

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Most women know that they should have a mammogram and Pap smear at regular intervals.

Considered mainstays of women's health care, the two tests are responsible for saving thousands of lives yearly by detecting breast and cervical cancer when the diseases are most treatable.

Very few women, however, know about a third test--one that could help ensure their physical strength and mobility even at very old ages.

Increasingly, health professionals are recommending that women have a bone mineral density test at regular intervals beginning at menopause to determine if they have osteoporosis or are at risk.

Despite the verifiable value of bone densitometry, it will be an uphill battle to convince women, health insurers and even some doctors of the test's importance, experts predict.

A recent poll of 1,000 women found that 60% were unaware that the bone-weakening disease could be detected with a test, and only 4% were aware of what kind of test was used to diagnose the disease, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF).

This level of ignorance is alarming considering that 50% of all U.S. women will have an osteoporosis-related fracture at sometime during life.

"What is frustrating is that bone-density testing is like mammography was 15 to 18 years ago: It took the women to convince the doctors to do mammography. And it's going to take the patient to bring this to the attention of the doctor," says osteoporosis expert Dr. Allan Frankel of Century City Hospital.

Osteoporosis develops when bone mineral is lost at a faster rate than the body produces new bone to take its place. The disease is most common after menopause when women cease to produce estrogen, which helps keep bones strong. The disease also can develop in younger women and in some men.

Until recently only estrogen therapy and the hormone calcitonin were available to treat osteoporosis. But Fosamax is expected to be the first of several new medications that will not only help reduce the risk of fracture in women with the disease but may also prevent it in high-risk women.

"It's fantastic," says Dr. Glenn Braunstein, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and chief of a government advisory panel that recently recommended approval of Fosamax. "There has been a tremendous increase in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies, and the Food and Drug Administration is also fast-tracking these drugs."

The question is whether women and their doctors are poised to benefit from these advances, says Dr. Michael Kleerekoper, a Wayne State University bone expert, in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. Unfortunately, the vast majority of patients learn they have osteoporosis only after they have suffered a devastating bone fracture. Once a woman fractures her hip or spine, only 20% recover fully.

"Accurate, precise, non-invasive methods of measuring bone mass have been available for almost three decades. Yet, osteoporosis is still most often diagnosed only after the first . . . fracture has occurred," Kleerekoper says.

There are several reasons both women and their doctors have ignored the risk of osteoporosis, experts say. These include:

* The myth that osteoporosis affects only very old women.

* The fear that little can be done to treat it.

* The belief that bone-density testing is too expensive, inconvenient and unlikely to be covered by insurance.

"The awareness among physicians is high but the interest is low," Frankel says. "I hate to say that it's because this is a woman's disease, but I think part of it is that doctors think it's inherently a boring illness."

Women are not much better at making osteoporosis an issue for themselves. Despite the fact that estrogen therapy is a known deterrent of osteoporosis--reducing the risk of fracture by as much as 60% in some studies--only 15% to 25% of post-menopausal women take hormone therapy for a year or longer.

Unless a woman has bone densitometry at menopause, when the decision whether or not to take estrogen is usually made, she may be unaware of her risk for osteoporosis, says Dr. Robert Rude of Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles. In general, the women at highest risk for the disease are white, thin, sedentary, have had a diet low in calcium and have received little exposure to sunlight, Cedars-Sinai's Braunstein says.

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