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Most women unaware of risk for debilitating fractures

Columbia leads landmark international study of more than 60,000 women; highlights need for public education about osteoporosis risk factors and treatment

Underscoring what researchers call a serious global public health concern, results from a new study led by Columbia University Medical Center reveal that many women at an elevated level of risk for osteoporosis-associated fractures fail to perceive the implications of the risk factors.

"We found that many women aren't making the connection between their risk factors and the serious consequences of fractures," said the lead author Ethel Siris, M.D., director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, and the Madeline C. Stabile Professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "Without a clear understanding of their risks, women cannot begin to protect themselves from fracture."

This study, part of the Global Longitudinal Study of Osteoporosis in Women (GLOW), which is based at the Center for Outcomes Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was published online by the journal Osteoporosis International on April 2, 2010. The study, conducted at 17 GLOW study sites worldwide, included more than 60,000 postmenopausal women in 10 countries in Europe, North America and Australia.

Results showed that among postmenopausal women diagnosed with osteoporosis – a condition associated with a high risk for fractures, as it causes bones to become fragile and more likely to break – only 43 percent thought their risk of a fracture was higher than other women their age. Additionally, only one in three (33 percent) women who reported two or more major risk factors for fracture, perceived themselves as being at higher risk for fracture than their age-matched peers.

Because many fractures can be prevented by appropriate treatment, it is important that elevated risk be recognized.

One in two women will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture after age 50; these fractures often carry with them chronic pain, reduced mobility, loss of independence and in the case of hip fracture, an increased risk of death. Because the likelihood of fractures increases substantially with age, fracture numbers are projected to rise as the population ages. Osteoporosis-related fractures are an international public health problem; in addition to the human suffering associated with these fractures, they also are the source of enormous health-care costs.

Improved education of physicians and postmenopausal women about osteoporosis risk factors is urgently needed, according to the study authors. If left untreated, osteoporosis can progress painlessly until a fracture occurs. Several risk factors for fractures have been identified and should be considered by physicians treating women age 55 and older:

- older age
- low weight
- parental hip fracture
- personal history of fracture (clavicle, arm, wrist, spine, rib, hip, pelvis, upper leg, lower leg, ankle) since age 45
- two or more falls in the past year
- current use of cortisone or prednisone (steroids often prescribed for a number of medical conditions)
- rheumatoid arthritis
- cigarette smoking
- consumption of three or more alcoholic beverages daily
Other risk factors for fractures include a variety of medical conditions and medications. Tools for diagnosis and risk assessment, including bone-density testing and the World Health Organization FRAX fracture risk-assessment tool, are widely available; still, the connection between identified risk factors and serious fracture outcomes is not being made by a majority of women at highest risk.

"We hope the insight we obtain from GLOW will help physicians and patients work together to identify those at risk for fracture and to enhance understanding of the meaning of that risk," said Siris. "Education is critical if we are to reduce the burden of fractures worldwide."

GLOW is a prospective, international cohort study of women 55 years of age and older who visited their primary-care physician during the two years prior to enrollment in the study. More than 60,000 women were recruited by more than 700 primary-care physicians in 17 cities in 10 countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States). GLOW is gathering information on osteoporosis risk factors, treatments, patient behaviors and fracture outcomes during a five-year period. Self-perceived risk of fracture was assessed using a five-point scale ranging from "much lower" to "much higher" risk than other women of the same age.

Of the 28,000 U.S. women participating in GLOW, 3,500 were from New York, enrolled at the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, an affiliate hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System. A quarter (25 percent) of these women reported an osteoporosis diagnosis, 23 percent had a previous fracture, 17 percent were low weight, 37 percent reported recent falls, and 20 percent a parental hip fracture. Despite the high prevalence of risk factors, only 36 percent of women with two or more major risk factors perceived themselves to be at higher risk of a fracture than their peers. This failure by women to appreciate their personal risk of fracture presents a barrier to them receiving appropriate management and safe and effective treatments.

GLOW is supported by a grant from The Alliance for Better Bone Health (formerly Sanofi-aventis and P&G Pharmaceuticals, now Sanofi-aventis and Warner Chilcott) and is being directed by the Center for Outcomes Research, University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, in medical and health sciences education, and in patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Established in 1767, Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons was the first institution in the country to grant the M.D. degree and is now among the most selective medical schools in the country. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the most comprehensive medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest in the United States. Columbia University Medical Center is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the nation's largest not-for-profit hospital provider. For more information, please visit

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, based in New York City, is the nation's largest not-for-profit, non-sectarian hospital, with 2,242 beds. The Hospital has nearly 2 million inpatient and outpatient visits in a year, including more than 230,000 visits to its emergency departments — more than any other area hospital. NewYork-Presbyterian provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine at five major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division. One of the largest and most comprehensive health care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S.News & World Report. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the nation's leading medical colleges: Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For more information, please visit

About the Center for Outcomes Research (COR)

COR is based at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, Mass. The mission of COR is to collect and evaluate data that reflect real-world practices and outcomes and to provide physicians with confidential reports that allow comparison of their practices to evidence-based performance standards. For more information, please visit

Elizabeth Streich | EurekAlert!
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