Wednesday Bubble: Your bones, your health. The lowdown on bisphosphonates

Posted by on Sep 8, 2010 in bone health, osteoporosis | 0 comments

For decades, physicians have been prescribing a class of medications known as bisphosphonates (e.g. Fosamax, Actonel, Boniva) to preserve bone health in menopausal women and prevent fractures in both men and women with osteoporosis at high-risk for them).  Bisphosphonates are often offered as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy or HRT.

Studies have shown that after age 35, women (and men) start to lose their bone density at a rate of 0.3% to 0.5% a year.  However, as estrogen levels decline through menopause, the rate of bone density loss accelerates. In fact, during the first five years after menopause, women can experience as much as a 30% loss of bone density. What’s more, experts estimate that by the time a woman reaches the age of 50, she has a 40% risk of suffering a fracture due to osteoporosis for the rest of her lifetime.

If you consider these statistics, it seems that using bisphosphonates is a good thing, right?

Well, not so fast. Earlier this year, I wrote a post highlighting reports of jaw bones collapsing among women taking bisphosphonates over a certain period of time. Included within the information were tips from the American Dental Association for protecting your jaw before any major dental procedures. This week, I want to add another facet to the bisphosphonate story, one that is definitely worth considering when weighing the benefits and risks of these drugs:

It is possible that use of oral bisphosphonates may increase the risk for developing cancer of the esophagus by as much as two-fold.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • In this particular study, researchers compared over 15,000 men and women who had been diagnosed with esophageal, gastric or colon cancer over the age of 40 to five healthy individuals with similar characteristics. All study participants had been prescribed bisphosphonates at least once, with some receiving more than 10 prescriptions, which would imply that they used the drugs over time (over the 7-1/2 year period of times examined, a majority used bisphosphonates for at three years or more).
  • Use of bisphosphonates over three years and having received at least 10 prescriptions was linked to a significant increase in cancer of the esophagus but not gastric or colon cancer.  People who used bisphosphonates for five years or more had twice the risk compared to those who did not. Note that these rates of cancer held regardless of the exact agent used.
  • An increased cancer risk remained even after actors for esophageal cancer, such as age, smoking, alcohol and body mass intake, were accounted for.
  • This increased risk, may be due, at least partly, to drug side effects that affect the esophagus directly, such as irritation and inflammation of the esophagus (i.e. esophagitis).

Now, mind you, esophageal cancer is extremely rare, affecting roughly 16,000 people in the US in 2010. However, death from esophageal cancer, is high and the disease is often fatal. Moreover, esophageal cancer tends to affect three to four times as many men as women, which is why this latest bit of information is as critical for men as it is for women entering menopause.

One important thing to keep in mind when you consider the risk and benefits of bisphosphonate therapy is that this particular study compared actual cases of these three types of cancer to healthy individuals in the population. Sometimes, the information yielded in these studies is not considered as conclusive as studies that are conducted proactively, and not retroactively. Still, this is not the first time that bisphosphonates have been linked to cancer of the esophagus.

Maintaining bone health and strength as we age, particularly as hormones decline, is critical to our health in the later years. It’s important to make the right decisions now, while we are still relatively young. Flashfree has plenty of posts on bone health and osteoporosis, and I encourage you to peruse them.  When it comes to your bones, it’s not just about ‘use it or lose it,’ but also, the three P’s:




Your bones, your health.

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