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Women with normal bone density can delay their next test, study suggests

Jan. 25, 2012—Women who have normal bone density tests at age 67 don't need screening again for another 15 years, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and other organizations recommend that all women ages 65 and older and younger women with an increased risk of fractures be screened for osteoporosis.

However, there is no general agreement about how often women should be screened. This study gives doctors some guidance for how often follow-up tests should be conducted.

“If a woman’s bone density at age 67 is very good, then she doesn’t need to be rescreened in two years or three years, because we’re not likely to see much change,” said Margaret L. Gourlay, MD, MPH, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Researchers used data from the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures, which is the longest-running osteoporosis study in the U.S. In all, they looked at bone mineral density test results from 4,957 women ages 67 years and older. All of the women were screened at least twice during the study period—some up to five times over a period of 15 years.

Researchers categorized the women into three groups according to their baseline bone mineral density: high risk, moderate risk and low risk. Women who already had osteoporosis were excluded.

Researchers then calculated how long it took for 10 percent of women in each group to develop osteoporosis. It took 1.1 years for 10 percent of women in the high-risk group to get the disease. For the moderate-risk group, it took about 5 years, and it took more than 15 years for the low-risk group.

“Our study found it would take about 15 years for 10 percent of women in the highest bone density ranges to develop osteoporosis,” Dr. Gourlay said. “That was longer than we expected, and it’s great news for this group of women.”

Of course, women should still work with their doctors to determine the best osteoporosis screening schedule for them.

“Doctors may adjust these [screening] time intervals for a number of reasons,” Dr. Gourlay said, “but our results offer an evidence-based starting point for this clinical decision.”

Learn more about osteoporosis in the Bones health topic center.

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