The Basics: Overview
A bone density test measures how strong bones are. The test will tell you if you have osteoporosis, or weak bones.
Women are at higher risk for osteoporosis than men, and the risk increases with age.
- If you’re a woman age 65 or older, schedule a bone density test.
- If you’re a woman age 64 or younger and you have gone through menopause, ask your doctor if you need a bone density test.
Men can get osteoporosis, too. If you’re a man over age 65 and you’re concerned about your bone strength, talk with your doctor or nurse.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a bone disease. It means your bones are weak and more likely to break. People with osteoporosis most often break bones in the hip, spine, and wrist.
There are no signs or symptoms of osteoporosis. You might not know you have the disease until you break a bone. That’s why it’s so important to get a bone density test to measure your bone strength.
What happens during a bone density test?
A bone density test is like an x-ray or scan of your body. The test doesn’t hurt, and you don't need to do anything to prepare for it. It only takes about 15 minutes.
The Basics: Am I at Risk?
Am I at risk for osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is most common in older women, but men can also get it. Your risk for osteoporosis increases as you get older.
Other things can increase your risk for osteoporosis, including:
- Hormone changes (especially for women who have gone through menopause)
- Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D
- Taking certain medicines
- Smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Having a low body weight
- Having a parent who broke a hip
Check out these resources to learn more about osteoporosis and bone health:
The Basics: Treatment Options
What if I have osteoporosis?
If you have osteoporosis, you can still slow down bone loss. Finding and treating the disease early can keep you healthier and more active – and help lower your risk of breaking bones.
Depending on the results of your bone density test, you may need to:
- Add more calcium and vitamin D to your diet
- Get more physical activity
- Take medicine to slow down bone loss
Your doctor can tell you what steps are right for you. It doesn’t matter how old you are – it’s never too late to improve your bone health.
Take Action: Get Tested
Take these steps to protect your bone health.
Schedule a bone density test if your doctor recommends it.
Ask your doctor if you’re at risk for osteoporosis and if you need to schedule a bone density test.
Use these questions about preventing osteoporosis to start a conversation with your doctor at your next checkup.
What about cost?
Screening for osteoporosis is covered under the Affordable Care Act. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get screened at no cost to you.
Check with your insurance company to find out what's included in your plan. For information about other services that are covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
If you have Medicare, find out about Medicare coverage for bone density tests.
If you don’t have health insurance, you can still get a bone density test. To learn about free or low-cost options, find a health center near you.
Take Action: Calcium and Vitamin D
You need both calcium and vitamin D for strong bones.
Get enough calcium.
Calcium helps keep your bones strong. You can get calcium from:
- Low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Broccoli and some leafy greens, like kale and turnip greens
- Tofu with added calcium
- Orange juice with added calcium
- Calcium pills
Get enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps your body take in calcium.
Your body makes vitamin D when you’re out in the sun. You can also get vitamin D from:
- Salmon or tuna
- Fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt with added vitamin D
- Breakfast cereals and juices with added vitamin D
- Vitamin D pills
Take Action: Get Active
Physical activity can help slow down bone loss. Weight-bearing activities (like running or doing jumping jacks) help keep your bones strong.
- Aim for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.
- Do muscle-strengthening activities at least 2 days a week. These include lifting weights or using resistance bands (long rubber strips that stretch).
- Team up with a friend or join a fitness class. Getting active with others can help you stick with it.
Find activities that work for you.
You don't need special equipment or a gym membership to stay active. Check with your local community center or senior center to find fun, affordable ways to get active.
- Learn how to stay active as you get older.
- Get ideas for staying motivated to be active.
- Find more physical activity tips for older adults [PDF - 1.2 MB].
If you have a health condition or a disability, be as active as you can. Your doctor can help you choose activities that are right for you.
Take Action: Healthy Habits
Stay away from cigarettes and alcohol.
Smoking cigarettes and drinking too much alcohol can weaken your bones.
- If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
- If you choose to drink, drink alcohol only in moderation. This means no more than 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men.
Take steps to prevent falls.
Falls can be especially serious for people with weak bones. You can make small changes to lower your risk of falling, like doing exercises that improve your balance. For example, tai chi is a mind-body exercise that improves balance.
Content last updated January 22, 2020
This information on bone density was adapted from materials from the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and the Office on Women’s Health.
Joan A. McGowan, Ph.D. & Patricia Reynolds
Division of Musculoskeletal Diseases
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
National Institutes of Health