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If you're like so many women, you don't give much thought to your bones -- that's something to worry about later, right? After all, you're young, and osteoporosis is a disease of old age.

The truth is, early adulthood is a key time to make sure your bones are in their best possible shape, says Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., author of Strong Women, Strong Bones (Perigee, 2001) and director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. "It's a critical time period, but it's one in which women are quite complacent about bone health," she says.

Waiting too long to ensure your bones stay strong, however, could be a costly mistake that leads to debilitating fractures down the road. An estimated 8 million American women have the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis, and millions more have osteopenia, a precursor condition marked by significant bone loss. But you don't have to be one of them. Bone up on six common misconceptions about osteoporosis -- and take action so you remain healthy for years to come.

Myth: I'm too young to be concerned about my bone health.
The stage for brittle bones is set early in life. "By the time you're 25, you've reached your peak bone mass," says Felicia Cosman, M.D., clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) in Washington, D.C. After this point, you can't add more bone mass but you can keep the stores you have from becoming depleted. "Think of it as a 'bone bank,'" Cosman says. "As you're building your peak bone mass, you want to get it as high as you possibly can -- and that's like putting money in the bank," she explains. "Later, even though you can't add more to the bank, you can prevent withdrawal."

Bone constantly renews itself in the body, but as women age, the withdrawals begin to exceed the deposits -- particularly after menopause, when we lose bone-protecting estrogen. So invest in your bone bank now, by taking preventive steps such as getting enough calcium (1,000 milligrams daily) and exercise, and you'll reap the benefits in years to come.

Myth: I take a calcium supplement, so I don't need to worry.
Supplements can help you get your daily calcium requirements, but the mineral is most easily absorbed from foods. Dairy products such as skim milk, lowfat yogurt (1 cup provides 300 and 415 milligrams, respectively) and Swiss cheese are the richest sources, but broccoli, kale and oranges also contain the mineral. (See our Lowfat & Easy column on page 216 for delicious, calcium-rich recipes.) A healthful diet boosts bone in other ways, too, such as by providing vitamin D, as well as magnesium and vitamins C and K, all of which benefit the skeleton.

If you're not getting enough calcium through your diet, a supplement can help. There are a variety to choose from, each with pros and cons. If you're taking a calcium-carbonate supplement, do so with food, which enhances absorption; calcium-citrate supplements, on the other hand, can be taken at any time. But avoid supplements made with unrefined oyster shell, warns the NOF.

Experiment with supplements from reputable manufacturers (a USP symbol on a label is a good guide) to find one that suits you. And keep in mind that you don't need to spend a lot of money or put up with unpleasant side effects (like gas or constipation) to keep your bones strong, says Robert P. Heaney, M.D., a professor of medicine at Creighton University's Osteoporosis Research Center in Omaha, Neb.

Myth: Becoming hunched with age is normal.
"A small amount of height loss is a normal accompaniment of aging," Cosman says. Women who live into old age may lose about half an inch due to the degeneration of discs in the spine, she says. They may also shrink a little due to poor posture and weakened back muscles. But loss of an inch or more in height, particularly when accompanied by the "dowager's hump," might signal osteoporosis and the presence of fractured vertebrae -- and that's not normal. If women with these symptoms haven't already suffered a hip or wrist fracture, it's likely that they will, though drug treatments may help offset the risk. Half of all women over 50 are expected to experience an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their lives, but it doesn't have to be that way. "Fractures are not a normal consequence of aging," Cosman says.

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