Results from the largest epidemiological study of osteoporosis in Europe suggest that women are at almost 10 times more likely to suffer from the disease than reports from general practitioners indicate.

Men, who were previously thought to suffer rarely from osteoporosis, have about half the fracture rates of women, but even this proportion is far greater than generally expected.

The study, just published in the Journal of Bone & Mineral Research, was co-ordinated by the European Prospective Osteoporosis Study (EPOS) headed by Dr Jonathan Reeve of the Bone Research Group (MRC) of the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, and by Professor Alan Silman, head of the European Vertebral Osteoporosis Study (EVOS) at the Arthritis and Rheumatology Centre Epidemiology Unit, School of Epidemiology & Health Sciences, University of Manchester.

Osteoporosis is characterised by a reduction in bone density which leads to painful fractures, most commonly in the wrists, hip and spine. Now, for the first time, doctors have reliable estimates of the incidence as well as the prevalence of osteoporosis across Europe.

Drs Reeve and Silman collected data from almost 8,000 volunteers from 18 European countries, making it the largest epidemiological study of osteoporosis in Europe ever conducted. While similar studies usually examine patients at only one time period, Dr Reeve examined the same group of patients twice over a few years.

The researchers took spinal x-ray images of men and women aged 50 to 79 from over 30 communities to look for spinal fractures, which are often a major consequence of osteoporosis. Then the researchers followed up these patients about four years later, on average.

The study shows that for every 100 women aged 65, one will suffer from a spinal fracture within 12 months. For men aged 65, one out of 200 will suffer a spinal fracture within a year. By the age of 80, 40 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men can be expected to have suffered an osteoporotic spine fracture.

Drs Reeve and Silman are now assessing the role of several key lifestyle risk factors on the occurrence of fractures and the contribution of bone mineral density. Their research groups are also evaluating the outcome following spinal fracture both in terms of morbidity and mortality.

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