Saturday 17 March 2018

'It's a myth that bone disease is untreatable'

Professor Moira O'Brien started medicine when she was 16, and more than 60 years later, the full-time bone consultant has no plans to retire

human skeleton under the x-rays
human skeleton under the x-rays
Professor Moira O’Brien
Gwyneth Paltrow

By 80 years of age, most people are enjoying the well-earned down time of their golden years. Professor Moira O'Brien, however, is still working five days a week as an osteoporosis consultant and, for good measure, she's also president of the Osteoporosis Society of Ireland charity.

In her spare time, what is left of it after all of that, she likes to dance, swim and do water aerobics to keep fit.

It's an impressive schedule, but Prof O'Brien has always broken the mould when it came to expectations.

She was the first female medical professor in the Trinity Medical School and she was the first person to introduce a DEXA machine (or bone density scanner) to Ireland in 1990.

She left school at the age of 15 to study medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) on a scholarship, and by the time she was 24, she was Ireland's Olympic physician for the Moscow, LA and Seoul games.

It was while working with these athletes that she was first exposed to the problems of osteoporosis, which then led her to the position of osteoporosis consultant where she became one of the main drivers behind the Osteoporosis Society of Ireland.

At this stage in her life, she is all too aware of the problems osteoporosis presents for ageing people, and is herself, taking a new product by BR Foods called True Life Shake Up 50+. This targets serious health problems associated with ageing, such as sarcopenia, the steady loss of muscle mass, and osteoporosis.

Prof O'Brien said: "People tend to eat a lot of bread as they get older. Vitamin D is essential for a whole load of different conditions, but there is a worldwide deficiency in vitamin D, particularly in the northern hemisphere because we don't get enough sun.

"And a lot of people cover up too much with sun block or make-up and so don't get enough vitamin D.

"It's hard to get enough of it through diet alone - you can get it through things like eggs and oily fish. Shake-Up 50+ is an easy one for older people who want some calories during the day. The important thing is, it's palatable.

"It's easy to take. People who have difficulty eating a lot of food will get calories and that all-important vitamin D."

While osteoporosis is associated with older people, it can occur at any age. One in two women will get it in their lifetime, and one in four men. Well-known figures who have spoken out about the disease include comedienne Joan Rivers and actress Gwyneth Paltrow, pictured, who both suffer from brittle bones.

In Ireland, there are 300,000 people with osteoporosis but only 20,000 are diagnosed.

"It is preventable and, in the majority of people, it is treatable," says Prof O'Brien.

All sorts of things can cause osteoporosis - people with stress, anorexics, anybody with irregular periods, women who lose their periods or if they have an early menopause, are all at risk.

People who over-train, if they have stress, this can also affect their hormones. If you have low oestrogen, you have difficulty forming vitamin D and it can cause stress fractures or major fractures.

The reason osteoporosis is so feared is because it causes fractures.

"If you fracture a hip, 25pc of people will die within six months to a year because of complications," said Prof O'Brien. "As people get older, they lose more bone. Women also lose bone density after the menopause."

A small number of young people suffer from osteoporosis too, particularly coeliacs.

Like many charities, the osteoporosis society has been affected by recent scandals, and along with other small charities, they are struggling.

"They have two staff for the whole of the Republic Of Ireland and we haven't received any government funding for last three years," explained Prof O'Brien. "We've got a website with information about how to prevent osteoporosis, and we give talks and have a help line.

"We don't have funding for TV ads to increase awareness, but we do give talks to various groups and help to set up the syllabus for osteoporosis for the biology and home economics Leaving Cert.

"In the early years, we got funding to produce literature and talk around the country. Now, there are just two people in the office and they're doing four jobs."

Raising awareness is important to Prof O'Brien, especially as she points out that one hip fracture can cost the State up to €50,000.

There is a myth about osteoporosis that it is untreatable.

"It is treatable with the appropriate medication, if not by mouth then by injection. But you must find the cause.

"Anyone who has lost height or who has a hump, these are red flags. It's not old age, it's osteoporosis. Look at your lifestyle, stop smoking, reduce alcohol intake."

Lots of things contribute to osteoporosis, such as family history or a history of using a certain medication or steroids, but one of the most important thing for osteoporosis is regular weight-bearing exercise.

"If you're thin, you're at risk. We need to educate people that it's preventable and treatable."

The good news is you can improve your bones at any age. Do 30 minutes of weight bearing exercise, or even just walk or run on the spot every day.

"If you can take calcium and vitamin D through your food or drinks it's much better. If you can't take it through that, the shakes have enough calories and protein, which are essential for bones."

As for Prof O'Brien, she has no intentions of retiring any time soon. "I love it. I love being able to help people. I started medicine when I was 16. I qualified at 22 and I've always been working."



*  Osteoporosis is preventable and treatable in the majority of people

*  25pc of men and 50pc of women over 50 have Osteoporosis. Only 15pc are diagnosed

*  Check the Irish Osteoporosis Society website to see if you have a risk factor, as there are 60+ causes

*  Eating a healthy diet and exercise regularly which helps to protect bones

*  The only test the Osteoporosis Society recommends for the screening, diagnosis and monitoring of bone health is a DXA scan of the spine and hips

*  Take the recommended daily amounts of calcium, vitamin D and protein

*  Anyone diagnosed with Osteoporosis should be assessed by a physiotherpist prior to staring any form of exercise programme

*  Anyone who breaks a bone from a trip and fall or less should be checked for undiagnosed Osteoporosis

*  Anyone who has lost height, developed a hump or has undiagnosed pain should be checked

Health & Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life