Most women over 65 have heard of a DEXA scan – an X-ray test that measures bone density or how strong and thick bones are, usually in the spine and hip. The DEXA scan identifies osteoporosis, or weak bones that can break easily.

But could doctors check for signs of osteoporosis while examining people for another medical problem? Researchers in China found that a type of CT scan called low-dose computed tomography, or LDCT, typically used to screen people at risk for lung cancer, can also be used to diagnose osteoporosis. A low dose CT uses about 90% less ionized radiation than a conventional CT. A CT scan takes cross-sectional images of soft tissue, bones, and blood vessels and reveals more detail than an x-ray.

Build strong bones

The human body needs strong bones. Bones are made from calcium and collagen; these form the framework to which the meat adheres. The bone forms over many years and gets stronger until a person reaches early adulthood. The more bones you produce at a young age, the more protection you will have against osteoporosis in your later years.

In a person’s 20s, if the body is not getting enough vitamin D, calcium, and exercise to prevent this loss, the body can start losing bones.

When the amount of bone produced does not replace what has been lost, osteoporosis sets in.

Women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men for two reasons. Your bones are usually smaller than a man’s, and the drop of estrogen that comes with menopause can cause rapid bone loss. However, men are not immune to bone loss and are also at risk of osteoporosis.

An alternative to DEXA?

In 2018 and 2019, over 69,000 adults were screened for lung cancer using LDCT, a study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research reported. Researchers at several health centers across China found that LDCT can determine bone density. This means that people who have an LDCT scan for another reason, such as lung cancer screening, may also be screened for osteoporosis. The researchers found two benefits: using the LDCT is cheaper and exposes the person to less radiation.

LDCT may have an advantage over DEXA scans when it comes to diagnosing osteoporosis in men, the study said. While the number of women diagnosed with osteoporosis by LDCT was similar to the number of women diagnosed by DEXA scans, twice as many men were diagnosed with LDCT compared to DEXA scans.

Take them home

The study shows that for people being screened for lung cancer – like the elderly who have smoked for years or heavy smokers who have quit – an LDCT scan could one day offer two-for-one screening.

In the meantime, if you’re a woman over 65 or at risk for broken women, this advice is for you: The U.S. Task Force on Preventive Services recommends a DEXA bone density test. How often this will depend on the results of your initial screening. If there are no problems, do another scan in about 15 years.