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How Aging Undermines Bone Healing (and what to do about it)

The process of bone healing slows down and becomes less effective with age.

Here’s why damaged bones heal more slowly in older people than in younger people:

  1. It can take longer to heal from an injury as you get older.
  2. People over 50 – particularly women (see sources below this article) – tend to be at increased risk for developing osteoporosis, a condition characterized by thinning bones.

Osteoporosis makes fractures more likely and affects the pace of healing. If you have osteoporosis or another condition affecting your bones — such as rheumatoid arthritis — you may not fully recover even with proper care and treatment.

The reason that bone healing takes so long in older people is that it involves several different processes working together in unison:

  • The break in the bone must occur cleanly before any other work can begin.
  • Blood vessels must form within each half of your injured limb.
  • Cells, called osteoblasts, move into position on both sides of the fracture site; these cells then secrete substances that help repair damaged tissue and stimulate new blood vessels.
  • Osteoclasts (cells responsible for breaking down old bone tissue) complete their work so that all that remains is healthy tissue surrounding healthy blood vessels filled with healthy cells.

The immune system and bone marrow’s capacity for producing new cells decreases. Cells accumulate that have lost their ability to correctly divide and grow. This is called senescence.

Aging Impacts the Body’s Ability to Repair Each Bone

The immune system is a complex, interdependent network that protects the body from infections and illnesses. It consists of organs – such as the spleen and bone marrow – that produce white blood cells that fight bacteria and viruses.

aging couple celebrate bone healing through dance

The bone marrow is the soft tissue inside bones where blood cells are produced to fight infection or injury. This process is called hematopoiesis (production of blood), which also produces platelets that help clot blood and red blood cells to deliver oxygen throughout your body.

Although it’s often overlooked, bone marrow plays a vital role in helping heal injuries and wounds by producing new cells when old ones are damaged by disease, injury, or aging — a process known as regeneration.

Senescent cells accumulate as we age. These do not divide like other cells, interrupting the regeneration of cartilage that protects joints and keeps bones moving smoothly.

As a result, bones do not repair themselves as well over time, putting older people at greater risk of osteoporosis — where they lose density in the bones.

When senescent cells accumulate, they produce proinflammatory cytokines that can harm healthy tissues. The accumulation of these senescent cells may weaken your body’s ability to heal itself and increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most common causes of hip fractures is tripping or falling off stairs due to weakened bones.

However, it’s not just falling that can cause problems. Sitting for too long can adversely affect bone health because it restricts blood flow and limits movement needed for strong muscles and healthy joints — allowing senescent cells to build up.

Proven Solutions for Improving Bone Strength

Medical experts don’t yet fully understand why aging weakens the body’s ability to heal. More research is needed in this area, but there are a few factors that contribute to this phenomenon:

  • As we age, our muscles lose mass and strength due to a decrease in lean body mass (the weight of everything other than fat). This reduces the force we can generate through muscle contraction and decreases our physical activity level — both of which play essential roles in bone healing.
  • With age comes the deterioration of some tissues. Cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and scar tissue become less resilient over time — which means they may not be able to withstand compression forces like tearing or stretching during injury repair as well as they once did.

Researchers are working on developing therapies to address this challenge. In the meantime, proven methods can help alleviate symptoms of weakening bones.

Switch to Anti-Inflammatory Diet

The genius of an anti-inflammatory diet is that it helps improve cellular health. When you improve your cellular health, you’re helping your entire body improve at its most fundamental source.

In other words, when your cells are operating perfectly, everything else is healthier as a result, including your skeletal system.

An anti-inflammatory diet is typically abundant in vegetables yet avoids any foods that your body is uniquely irritated by.

What foods create a negative sensitivity is different for each person – but for many – flour, sugar, peanuts, nightshades, seed oils, fried foods, alcohol, and highly processed foods are typical culprits.

Another chief characteristic of an anti-inflammatory diet is that you can eat quality protein and complex carbohydrates; however, how much of these macronutrients you consume depends specifically on your current level of physical activity.

Increase Bone Mineral Density with Supplementation

An anti-inflammatory diet is also beneficial for bone health because its typical menu tends to be higher in those micronutrients that directly assist the human bone – calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K, and Omega-3.

Each human bone is alive! Every day, old bone cells are replaced with new bone cells.

The human bone is designed to support the human body, protect its vital organs, and make it mobile. However, the human bone is also a storage tank for some essential minerals.

aging couple enjoying outdoors after improving bone health

Though fresh air, sunlight, and an anti-inflammatory diet go a long way toward improving bone health, you might also choose to take supplements as an insurance policy against micronutrient deficiency that could harm bone health.

Exercise Helps Your Skeletal System

Your doctor can tell you what your current bone density is. Over 200 million people currently have osteoporosis. About 1 in 3 women – and 1 in 5 men – over 50 will break a bone because of it.

Poor bone health leads to more bone being lost than replaced, causing a lessening in bone density.

Because we are all genetically unique (Up to 66% of differences in people’s bone mineral density may be attributed to genetics) and have different abilities to absorb sunlight and vitamin D supplements, you might find exercise a particularly effective way to strengthen your bones.

The types of exercise that probably support bone health are:

Engage Common Sense Tactics on Behalf of Your Bone Health

The remaining interventions are common sense – avoid cigarettes, have very little alcohol, improve sleep, and reduce stress and negative thinking patterns.

Many people know that tripping and falling are common in seniors and can have devastating effects. But, in reality, people of all ages fall or faint more often than is commonly believed.

When a skull or wrist hits a wall or floor – it’s a moment of truth. Because that’s the exact second that you want your bone health to be as excellent as it possibly can be.

If osteoporosis runs in your family, you might consider consulting with your medical doctor now and getting your bone mineral density (BMD) tested so that you have a baseline from which you can monitor your bone health from this point forward as you age.

Additional Resources about Aiding Your Own Bone Health:

Examine.com – a very helpful website that looks at entire collections of research studies on specific health topics and analyzes their scientific validity – https://examine.com/

SelfDecode.com – a website that is excellent at helping you understand your own genetics and how you can turn the dial “up” or “down” on specific genes – https://selfdecode.com/

Osteoporosis in Women – https://www.webmd.com/menopause/guide/osteoporosis-menopause

Calcium and Other Nutrients for Skeletal System – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK109817/

Impact of Resistance Training on Bone Density – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9927006/