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Is It Time to Offer Bone Density Testing?

The removal of the default retirement age means that employers must manage more age-related illness in the workforce. Loss of bone density, commonly referred to as osteopenia or osteoporosis, is one of the most common problems of aging. It is particularly acute for women.

The amount of bone density we have typically peaks around the age of 30. Following that, most people experience a slow, steady decline in bone density over their lifetime. When bone density levels drop below a certain level, there is a diagnosis of osteoporosis. Loss of bone density can occur with few symptoms. Often, the earliest sign is when a patient breaks a bone after an apparently minor fall or injury (a fragility facture).

Osteoporosis and broken bones have several risk factors. Some you can change; some you’ll have to work round.

Risk factors you can change

  • Low body weight. If you have low body weight, you're more likely to have less bone tissue.a
  • If you're older, having low body weight also means you have less fat padding around the hips, to cushion the impact of a fall. This makes broken bones more likely if you trip and fall.a
  • Smoking. Smoking slows down the cells that build bone in your body.
  • If you're a woman, smoking also increases your chances of an earlier menopause. Postmenopausal women have an increased risk of osteoporosis and breaking a bone.
  • Drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol affects the cells that build and break down bone.
  • It also makes you unsteady on your feet, making you more likely to trip, fall and break a bone.
  • If you have low balance, coordination and reflexes, you are more likely to trip or stumble, and potentially break a bone in a fall.

Risk factors you can't change

  • Our genes determine the potential size and strength of your skeleton. Research shows that if one of your parents broke their hip, you are more likely to break a bone yourself.
  • Ageing. From our late thirties, the amount of bone tissue you have starts to naturally decrease. This happens at different rates in different people. As you get older, your bone tissue loses strength and becomes more likely to break in general, regardless of your bone density.
  • Becoming less steady on your feet also becomes more likely with age. This increases your risk of slipping or tripping and breaking a bone in a fall.
  • Being a woman. Osteoporosis and broken bones are more common in women than men. Bones lose strength at a faster rate after the menopause. Women tend to live longer, on average, so are more likely to live with the lower bone strength that comes with age. Women tend to have smaller bones than men. Having bigger bones is found to reduce the risk of broken bones.
  • Being of Caucasian or Asian origin. If you are of Afro-Caribbean origin, your risk of osteoporosis and broken bones is lower than those of Caucasian or Asian origin, because your bones are bigger and stronger.
  • A history of broken bones. If you've broken bones easily in the past, including in the spine, you are much more likely to break a bone in the future. Research shows that after one broken bone you are two to three times more likely to have another.

A bone density test can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs. It helps to estimate the density of bones and the chance of breaking a bone. The Royal Osteoporosis Society recommends a bone density test of the hip and spine to diagnose osteoporosis.

Since I discovered that I have a high risk of developing osteoporosis, I have been taking my “bonios” every day to boost my calcium and vitamin D. And when I go out walking, I now wear a weighted vest, which looks slightly weird. But it’s worth it, because being slight, slim, female and post-menopausal I’m right there in the high-risk group. Grrr. That said, I am incredibly happy to have discovered this while I can still do something about it.

Employers could consider offering a bone density test to older employees and providing information and guidance to all age groups to enable them to take preventative action. No matter what a person’s age or bone density, it is important to ensure they are getting enough Vitamin D (most people aren’t getting anything like enough) and calcium intake, as well as undertake a regular regimen of weight-bearing exercise. Getting enough of these three things will help slow the decline in bone density which occurs naturally over time.

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2019 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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