I’ve never understood why healthy people regularly go to the doctor to find out if they’re sick. I go to the dermatologist once a year, and only because I live in South Florida, where we get skin cancer looking out the window. My only other doctor is the gynecologist, who I see when the pile of reminder post cards approaches the ceiling.
So, for some reason I still can’t fathom, I gave in to her demand to get a DEXA exam to see if my bones are dense as a 20-year-old’s. Of course they’re not; I’m 62.
Now my doctor wants me to take the drug alendronate and a calcium supplement to beef up my bones. Taking drugs goes against my religion. The last time I took an aspirin, Madonna was still a virgin. But like even the most inconsequential decisions I make, this one demanded a Google search.
My first effort brought up the promise from the International Osteoporosis Foundation that alendronate could cut my risk of breaking a hip by up to 50 percent. The Cleveland Clinic advised anyone with my bone density to get treated. Obviously, I needed to dig deeper.
A search for side effects of alendronate was more productive. I learned that 28 percent of alendronate users suffer from gastric distress. Not to worry, thanks to our obliging drug industry. Nexium and Prevacid work so well that regular users forget they’ve ever had heartburn. There had to be more to it, and there was. My next Google search revealed that long-term users of these wonder drugs face a high risk of kidney disease, dementia and, oddly enough, broken bones.
If I gave a hoot about my health, I’d obviously have to ignore my doctor’s orders. But before making up my mind, I wanted to talk to the experts. I questioned every 60-plus woman I know who seems likely to defy her doctor. The first two had quit the drug because of its side effects. A personal trainer friend refused to even start. Only one friend took it for several years without a single side effect. Her bones, meanwhile, had grown weaker.
The second decision I faced was whether to take calcium supplements, which the drug industry brilliantly disguises as candy. The salted caramel milk chocolates sounded so good I almost emptied the pharmacy shelf before remembering to dig up a reason not to. That’s when I discovered a warning on the Mayo Clinic’s web site that “there may be a link between calcium supplements and heart disease.”
I figured no salted caramel chocolate is worth that risk, especially after reading that supplements are not the best source of calcium. Food is, in spite of its low cost and widespread availability outside of drugstores. The food highest in calcium is milk, which I dislike unless it’s made into just about any flavor of ice cream. Milk may keep my bones from turning to pumice, but it’ll also hasten the end of life on Earth as we know it. That’s because milk comes from cows, and cows graze in pastures created from the destruction of carbon-absorbing, oxygen-producing forests. As if that weren’t enough to make me swear off Häagen-Dazs Mint Chip for life, 14 percent of the greenhouse gas methane comes from the gas cows pass.
I was happy to find a vegan web site that said I could get all the calcium I need from tofu, beans and greens. That’s a prescription I thought I could swallow until I realized I’d have to eat 22 cups of kale or four cups of beans a day to get all the calcium I need. On that diet, I’d foul the Earth’s atmosphere.
If I did choose food over supplements, I’d have the added dilemma of how to get enough vitamin D to absorb the calcium. The easiest way would be basking in the sun. But even I prefer a pill to skin cancer.
One concession I reluctantly made for my bone’s sake was giving up my glass of wine with dinner. I knew alcohol saps calcium from bones. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from Googling the booze-and-bones link. My digging paid off. I learned that alcohol weakens bones only in heavy drinkers. In moderate drinkers in their 50s and 60s, red wine actually strengthens them. Just to be sure I’d read that right, I checked several sources including the Wine Spectator. All agreed. Wine will keep my bones from breaking.
I poured myself a glass of Bordeaux and searched for more good news. Instead, I found a report informing me that “caffeine leaches calcium from bones.” Darn. I love coffee. Then I noticed the study was 18 years old. There must be a newer one showing caffeine actually puts calcium into bones. So I Googled. Then I Googled some more. Nothing. But I’m still looking.