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Kids and Their Bones

— National Institute of Mental Health
Updated on Apr 14, 2011

Typically, when parents think about their children's health, they don't think about their bones. But building healthy bones by adopting healthy nutritional and lifestyle habits in childhood is important to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures later in life.

Osteoporosis, the disease that causes bones to become less dense and more prone to fractures, has been called “a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences,” because the bone mass attained in childhood and adolescence is an important determinant of lifelong skeletal health. The health habits your kids are forming now can make, or literally break, their bones as they age.

Why Is Childhood Such an Important Time for Bone Development?

Bones are the framework for your child's growing body. Bone is living tissue that changes constantly, with bits of old bone being removed and replaced by new bone. You can think of bone as a bank account, where (with your help) your kids make “deposits” and “withdrawals” of bone tissue. During childhood and adolescence, much more bone is deposited than withdrawn as the skeleton grows in both size and density.

For most people, the amount of bone tissue in the skeleton (known as bone mass) peaks by the late 20s. At that point, bones have reached their maximum strength and density. Up to 90 percent of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and age 20 in boys, which makes youth the best time for your kids to "invest" in their bone health.

What Is Osteoporosis? Isn't It Something Old People Get?

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become fragile and break easily. When someone has osteoporosis, it means his/her “bank account” of bone tissue has dropped to a low level. If there is significant bone loss, even sneezing or bending over to tie a shoe can cause a bone in the spine to break. Hips, ribs, and wrist bones also break easily. The fractures from osteoporosis can be painful and disfiguring. There is no cure for the disease.

Osteoporosis is most common in older people but can also occur in young and middle-aged adults. Optimizing peak bone mass and developing lifelong healthy bone behaviors during youth are important ways to help prevent or minimize osteoporosis risk as an adult.

How Can I Help Keep My kids' Bones Healthy?

The same healthy habits that keep your kids going and growing will also benefit their bones. One of the best ways to encourage healthy habits in your children is to be a good role model yourself. Believe it or not, your kids are watching, and your habits, both good and bad, have a strong influence on theirs.

The two most important lifelong bone health habits to encourage now are proper nutrition and plenty of physical activity.

Eating for healthy bones means getting plenty of foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D. Most kids get enough vitamin D from sunlight (or from foods like egg yolks or fortified milk), but most do not get enough calcium in their diets to help ensure optimal peak bone mass. Are your kids getting enough calcium?

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