March 2, 2018 by

Underdiagnosed and undertreated, osteoporosis is a bone disease that often leads to severe and debilitating bone fractures. Roughly 35 million Americans are at risk of developing osteoporosis, and many who are living with the condition are unaware that they have it or that there are steps they could have taken to prevent it. Dr. Nancy Waltman and Dr. Laura Bilek are working to develop preventative measures while educating women on the risks of this prevalent and deadly condition.

Waltman, a professor in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, and Bilek, a physical therapist and an associate professor, are the lead investigators of a study titled “Bone-Loading Exercises Versus Risedronate on Bone Health in Post-Menopausal Women.” The study is part of a $3.2 million National Institutes of Health grant.

Waltman says that educating women about osteoporosis is an important step in treating it.

“It’s exciting when I meet women and talk about bones,” Waltman says. “[Osteoporosis] is very much a silent disease. People don’t talk about it, but they should be.”

Bilek and Waltman have screened thousands of women since 2015, and have recruited 220 of the 300 women needed for the study.

Bilek says that their ultimate goal is preventing bone loss in post-menopausal women.

“The most rapid bone loss occurs between the ages of 50 and 60; that’s who we seek out for the study,” Bilek says.

Bilek says that once a woman is chosen to participate in the study, they are put into one of three groups: the control group, which takes calcium and vitamin D; a second group that combines calcium, vitamin D, and exercise; or a third group that uses calcium, vitamin D, exercise, and the intake of bisphosphonates.

Bilek and Waltman say that ensuring the study was accessible to Spanish-speakers was important because the belief that osteoporosis mainly impacts Caucasian women is both common and false.

“A lot of Latina women don’t think they can have it [osteoporosis], but many Latina women don’t get enough calcium in their diet, putting them at greater risk,” Waltman says. “For our exercise program, we’ve partnered with the Kroc Center and have translators available.”

Another damaging rumor Bilek and Waltman are hoping to disprove is the “danger” of osteoporosis medications.

“The side effects reported in the media scared women away from taking the drugs,” Waltman says. “20-25 percent of women aren’t taking the medications they’re prescribed. It’s disappointing. Medication is very important in preventing fractures.”

Severe side effects have been reported from osteoporosis medications, but are incredibly rare, and Bilek and Waltman stress how dangerous osteoporosis can be if left untreated.

“About one in five people with hip fractures die within a year,” Bilek says. “I’m very passionate about this disease because maybe we can prevent that from happening.” 

They will have to wait for the end of the study before they can draw any conclusions, but Bilek says that (in general) they know that exercise is good.

“The question becomes how do we implement effective exercise for their bones?” Bilek says. “Over long term, how can they keep exercising when they have other priorities?”

No matter the results, Bilek and Waltman say that the study can benefit the women who choose to participate. It offers education, free medical tests such as a DXA scan (which measures bone density), and a role in breaking the silence that seems to surround osteoporosis.

For more information on the study or to inquire about participation, call 402-559-6584 or email hops@unmc.edu.

From left: a normal bone vs. an osteoporotic bone. When bones break, the problem is usually found in the inner bone. Osteoporosis causes the inner bone to become porous and spongy (resembling honeycomb).

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.