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Osteoporosis

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There was a time when Morgan Montgomery could soar across a stage, his muscles taught, body strong and proud, and the audience in his thrall.

As a classical ballet dancer he had honed his body to perfection and was reaping the rewards in stage productions in Canada, Europe and Japan.

Long after his dancing career was over he still remained fit and active, especially on Whistler’s slopes.

So at 55 years old there was no good reason why this former career ballet dancer should have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, a potentially debilitating bone disease.

"There is no answer," said the building superintendent at Nesters Square.

"And I guess that’s the most frustrating part of it. I don’t know why it’s happening."

He is not alone. New studies show that more men may be diagnosed with this disease in the future as Canada’s population gets older.

The Canadian Multi-Centre Osteoporosis Study (CAMOS) is delving into a ten-year study at various sites across Canada, checking the bone density of a random selection of people, not just older women.

"This is where they are finding that there’s more men than they originally thought (with osteoporosis)," said Wendy McCrea, executive director of the Osteoporosis Society of Canada in Vancouver.

She suggests that this might be linked to various lifestyle factors, which increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Those risk factors include lack of calcium, smoking, alcohol, lack of sun, lack of activity and poor diet.

Still, by these counts Montgomery was not in a high-risk category. He led a relatively healthy lifestyle.

Looking back, knowing what he now knows, he said there were perhaps some warning signs. He was diagnosed with degenerative hip disease in 1992. At that time he also found out that there was degeneration in his upper neck and back.

But because he was a man, no one thought to give him a bone density test, least of all himself.

"It’s all part of the misconception that has been going on all these years about the nature of the disease," he said.

Then last summer he thought he had a strained back.

It turns out that along with a compression fracture in his lower back and two stress fractures, he had an extreme case of osteoporosis, with a reading of minus 3.9 on the bone density scale.

It was quite a blow to take especially after recovering successfully from hip surgery.

"At times I just really wonder why and wonder why I am bothering because it’s just almost too much," he said.

Though at times it may seem hopeless, Montgomery is not alone in his suffering.

There are an estimated 1.4 million Canadians who have the disease. That translates to one in every four women over 50 and one in every eight men over 50. Those numbers are expected to rise in coming years as Canada’s population ages.

A fellow sufferer is Whistler’s Eileen Tomalty, whose story is similar to Montgomery’s. Like him, Tomalty was not a prime candidate for osteoporosis with an active outdoor life and healthy living. She also drank about one litre of milk every day to boot and stayed clear of alcohol, smoking and caffeine.

When she turned 55 she did not qualify to participate in a UBC research study about the disease.

"Fifteen years later I was told that I had very severe osteoporosis," she said.

It was a defining moment in her life and she remembers the day she found out vividly.

It was winter 1999 and she was skiing with some friends. It was one of those perfect sunny days on the mountain, she recalled, except every time she tried to turn in her skis, which was as natural as walking to her, she had a pain in her lower back.

The pain was so bad that she went straight to the health centre where she learned she had an extreme case of osteoporosis in addition to two collapsed vertebrae. Her reading was minus 3.5. It was a complete shock.

"I didn’t even have an accident or anything," she said.

"They just collapsed."

That’s why osteoporosis is also known as the silent thief, robbing people of their bone density without any clue on the outside of the ravages taking place inside. The result is that sometimes it catches people like Tomalty totally unaware.

Tomalty raged against her diagnosis, alternating between anger, frustration and depression. She had a very low self-image and hated her body.

Before she was diagnosed she was skiing hard four times a week. Suddenly life as she knew it changed forever.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she thought. She was doing all the right things, particularly living in Whistler where there is such a strong focus on staying fit and healthy.

"I was caught up in it. It was stupid, stupid, stupid. I just imagined I was infallible," she said, as tears pooled in her eyes.

"And I never thought about it. And that’s what just got me so angry at myself, that I could forget, that I could just think that I was going to go on forever."

In part she blames herself for not demanding to get bone scans after she reached fifty.

"It’s our own responsibility and we’ve got to know," she said.

She has since found out that her mother also had osteoporosis.

Though the news literally laid her flat on her back with little energy, Tomalty has taken her disease by the horns, determined not to let it beat her.

She began a weight training program. She started to power walk every day, really pushing herself to walk harder. She started taking the right medications to build up her bones as well as a regime of vitamins. She did all the things the doctors told her she must do with gusto.

And after a year she has made improvements and the doctors are pleased with her results.

So is she. But she can’t help thinking it could have all been avoided if it had been detected earlier.

Researchers are still trying to understand why people like Tomalty and Montgomery get the disease while other don’t.

What they do know however is that the more risk factors a person has, the greater their risk of developing osteoporosis.

This is why Tomalty is on a crusade to get people educated about the disease; she doesn’t want others to get caught off guard the way she was.

Now she insists that all women over 50 get a bone density scan, updating that scan every five years after.

The scans are known as Bone Mineral Density (BMD) tests, which can detect low bone density and predict the risk of fracture.

"It’s a dirty disease," she said with the conviction of someone who is suffering through the pain.

"It’s a really rotten disease and you have to keep on it. You don’t want to go through it at the end of your life."

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