You might think of brittle bones and heart disease as two entirely different, unrelated health problems. The heart is a muscle, after all, while bones are the tough stuff of the body. But recent scientific findings from Norway suggest that a person with an ailing heart muscle may also be prone to weak bones…and vice versa.

The implications of this are frightening, given that an estimated 44 million Americans have either full-fledged osteoporosis or low bone density (and are at risk for osteoporosis), while 17.6 million Americans have heart disease. The study: Examining the medical records of some 6,000 men and women over a three-year period, researchers found that those with low bone density were also likely to have arterial damage, indicating that they are at risk for heart disease and stroke. And, in a previous study also from the same Norwegian researchers, those women who had suffered from a stroke were found to have a much lower bone density, on average, than other women of the same age.

To see what I might be able to learn about this connection, I called preventive cardiologist Susan Steinbaum, DO, director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. She told me that this latest study is just one of several pointing to an association between brittle bones and heart disease, and she said that while the reason for the link is not fully understood yet, one theory points to inflammation as the culprit. “We know that inflammation inside the lining of the arteries leads to heart disease,” Dr. Steinbaum said, adding that some researchers theorize that weak bones may be the result of cell wasting caused by that same inflammation. She noted that the good news is that “a lot of the lifestyle recommendations for heart disease are the same as for osteoporosis, so what works to prevent one can also help prevent the other.”

To Keep Both Heart & Bones Healthy

What to do? Most of the advice on how to keep your heart and bones healthy will sound very familiar but it is nonetheless worthy of review…

Get regular exercise. You need 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise—walking fast, pushing a lawnmower, playing doubles tennis—to protect your heart…and for your bones, you should also do weight-bearing exercises—yes, as in lifting weights—two to three times per week.

Watch your diet. “In some people, a high-fat, high-meat diet is associated with heart disease,” Dr. Steinbaum said, adding that evidence suggests that a diet high in saturated fats such as those found in red meat is the type of diet that also is linked with osteoporosis. Choose lean proteins and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to protect against both.

Stop smoking. The many reasons to give up cigarettes include preventing heart disease, but cigarette smoke has also been linked to low bone density, the precursor to osteoporosis.

Cautionary Notes

There are a few bits of advice that aren’t the same for heart and bones. Heart medications don’t seem to harm the bones, but medications known as bisphosphonates prescribed for osteoporosis have been associated with the heart disorder atrial fibrillation in some patients who took them. There’s also evidence that long-term use of these drugs can lead to fracture in the spine, hip and leg bones along with, in some people, deterioration of the jawbone. If you need these drugs, they should be used for only a limited period of time and under the close supervision of a doctor.

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