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Most women unaware of risk for debilitating fractures

WORCESTER, Mass. Underscoring what researchers call a serious international public health concern, results from the Global Longitudinal Study of Osteoporosis in Women (GLOW) showed that among women at an elevated level of risk for osteoporosis-associated fractures, there is a failure to perceive the implications of having important risk factors. For example, among postmenopausal women from 10 countries in Europe, North America and Australia diagnosed with osteoporosis, a condition putting them at high risk for fractures, only 43% thought their risk of a fracture was higher than that of other women their age. Additionally, only one in three (33%) women in GLOW who reported two or more major risk factors for fracture perceived themselves as being at higher risk for fracture than their age-matched peers.

This latest study from GLOW, which is based at the Center for Outcomes Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was published today in the journal Osteoporosis International and included more than 60,000 postmenopausal women in 10 countries.

"We've found that many women aren't making the connection between their risk factors and the serious consequences of fractures," said the lead author of the paper, Ethel Siris, MD, GLOW investigator and Director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center of the Columbia University Medical Center, New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "Without a clear understanding of their risks, women cannot begin to protect themselves from fracture."

One in two women will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture after age 50; these fractures often carry with them chronic pain, reduced mobility, loss of independence, and especially in the case of hip fracture, an increased risk of death. Because the likelihood of fractures increases substantially with older age, fracture numbers are projected to rise as the population ages. Osteoporosis-related fractures are an international public health problem; in addition to the human suffering associated with these fractures, they are also the source of enormous health care costs.

Improved education of both physicians and postmenopausal women about osteoporosis risk factors is urgently needed, according to the study authors. Osteoporosis causes bones to become fragile and therefore more likely to break. If left untreated, the disease can progress painlessly until a fracture occurs. Several risk factors for fractures have been identified and should be considered by physicians treating women age 55 and over:

  • older age
  • low weight
  • parental hip fracture
  • personal history of fracture (clavicle, arm, wrist, spine, rib, hip, pelvis, upper leg, lower leg, ankle) since age 45
  • two or more falls in the past year
  • current use of cortisone or prednisone (steroids often prescribed for a number of medical conditions)
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • cigarette smoking
  • consumption of three or more alcoholic beverages daily.

Other risk factors include a variety of medical conditions and medications. Although tools for diagnosis and risk assessment, including bone density testing and the World Health Organization FRAX fracture risk assessment tool, are widely available, the connection between identified risk factors and serious fracture outcomes is not being made by a majority of women who are at the highest risk. Since many fractures can be prevented by appropriate treatment, it is important that elevated risk be recognized.

"We hope the insight we obtain from GLOW will help physicians and patients work together to both identify those at risk for fracture and to enhance understanding of the meaning of that risk," said Dr. Siris. "Education is critical if we are to reduce the burden of fractures worldwide."


Contact: Alison Duffy
University of Massachusetts Medical School

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