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Don't Miss This New Warning Sign of Heart Trouble, Says Study

A common test for one condition might provide a red flag for another.

Osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become thin or brittle, may indicate that a woman is at increased risk of heart problems, a new study says. According to research published in the journal Heart, thinning of the lower (lumbar) spine, top of the thigh bone (femoral neck), and hip are especially linked to a higher risk of heart attack or stroke. Read on to see if you're at risk—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Caught COVID and Maybe Didn't Know It.

Women have a higher risk than men

Women have a higher risk of death from cardiovascular issues than men — 21% to 15% — and currently used risk factors are male-centric, so better risk assessors are needed for women, the researchers said.

Women commonly receive a test called a DXA scan to check for osteoporosis, so the scientists investigated whether there might be a link between bone thinning and heart disease. They analyzed medical data from more than 12,000 women between the ages of 50 and 84 who had received a DXA scan to check for osteoporosis at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital between 2005 and 2014. Women with a history of heart disease or serious illness were excluded.

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Osteoporosis linked to 79% higher risk of heart problems

The study participants were followed for an average of nine years. During that time, about 4% had a heart attack or stroke, and 2% died. The researchers found that thinning bones—defined as a low bone-mineral-density score at the lumbar spine, femoral neck, and hip—were associated with 16% to 38% higher risk of heart attack or stroke, after accounting for other factors like age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and previous broken bones. And being diagnosed with osteoporosis was associated with a 79% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

The researchers warned that the study was observational, so it can only show a correlation, not prove causation. It also involved patients at one specific medical center, so the findings may not be applicable to the larger population. 

But, the scientists said, that commonly used bone scan may give women and doctors another potential tool to assess their risk of heart disease.

"Considering that [DXA scanning] is widely used to screen for osteopenia and osteoporosis in asymptomatic women, the significant association between [bone mineral density] and higher risk of [cardiovascular disease] provides an opportunity for large-scale risk assessment in women without additional cost and radiation exposure," they wrote.

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What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is much more common in women than men: Experts estimate that 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and 80% are women. Nearly half of women over 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis. When women reach menopause, estrogen levels decline sharply, which can lead to bone loss. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of osteoporosis include back pain, loss of height, stooped posture, or a bone that breaks more easily than expected.

You can support your bone health by getting adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D, and by engaging in regular bone-strengthening, weight-bearing exercises like walking, Zumba, or jumping rope, says Harvard Medical School. Talk with your doctor if you're concerned about your bone or heart health or want to know if additional screening is right for you. And to protect your health, don't miss these Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael