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Boston winters can take a toll on cars, energy bills and even the bones in our bodies. Lack of sun during the winter can deprive Bostonians of vitamin D, an essential nutrient, which helps keep our bones strong.

"Everyone should be concerned with their bone health, starting as early as the teen years," says Nancy Akbari, M.D., Internal Medicine Physician at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. "Women should be especially aware of their bone health because they are four times more likely than men to develop osteoporosis."

Building blocks of bones
Bones are dynamic organs. They are constantly breaking down and building back up. There are two types of cells in bones: osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Osteoblasts are constantly working to rebuild bones and osteoclasts break bones down to make room for calcium.

By age 30, most people have acquired their peak bone mass and the rebuilding process is not quite as powerful. When bone health is not properly managed, bones don't rebuild as easily and may become weak and brittle with aging. That's why it's imperative to care for your bones from an early age.

Vitamins and minerals create healthy bones
"Everything affects bone health," says Akbari. "For example, diet, exercise, medications, hormones, environment and smoking all play roles in the way bones rebuild."

Calcium is also essential to maintain good bone health. People between the ages of 9 and 18 should get 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day. Adequate intake for adults between ages 19 and 50 is 1,000 milligrams. Adults older than age 50, should get 1,500 milligrams.

Dr. Akbari says people should try to get calcium through their diet because it is better absorbed from food sources. However, if they are having trouble achieving the recommended amount, supplements are available.

Good sources of calcium include:

  • Dairy Products - nonfat or low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Dark Green, Leafy Vegetables - broccoli, kale and bok choy
  • Calcium Fortified Foods - cereal, orange juice, bread, soy milk and tofu products
  • Nuts - almonds

Working as a team, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. "Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. Approximately 20 minutes of exposure, three times a week may be sufficient," says Dr. Akbari. "In addition to supplements, vitamin D can also be found in salmon, tuna, egg yolks and liver."

Strengthen bones with exercise
Just like your muscles get stronger through physical activity, bones need exercise to stay strong. Weight-bearing and resistance exercises, such as dancing, hiking, jogging, stair climbing and weight lifting, are ideal.

"These types of activities are an excellent way to help build bones," says Dr. Akbari. "In addition, they improve balance, which helps prevent falling, a main cause of fractures."

Post-menopausal women, men age 50 and older, and people taking high-risk medications, such as anti-seizure prescriptions or corticosteroids, are at higher risk for bone loss and should talk with their doctor about getting a bone density screening.

Primary care physicians at Mount Auburn Hospital can help patients get on a healthy track for long-term bone health. "We can also help improve deteriorating bone health," says Dr. Akbari. "People should talk to their doctor if they have any concerns. We can help guide them in the right direction."

To obtain a new primary care physician, call (800) 322-6728.