My grandmother probably never heard of osteoporosis. For most of her life the disease was rare and largely unknown. But in 1982, right around her 90th birthday (and by then she was too old to care) the word osteoporosis was suddenly thrust into the common vocabulary. A massive public information campaign began, warning post-menopausal women by every means possible of imminent danger and disfigurement from weakened bones. The pharmaceutical companies, pushing their lucrative hormone replacement therapy (HRT), sponsored the campaign that sent a generation of fearful women scurrying to their doctors for prescriptions. No one seemed concerned about the absence of studies that proved HRT could prevent or reverse osteoporosis. Soon, though, a problem did emerge: there was no easy way to test the strength of bones in living people. So the Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) machine was developed in 1988, and finally our bones could all be compared on the basis of density.
Subsequently, the World Health Organization established a large database of DEXA readings, and in 1994 they announced international standards for osteoporosis. They also changed its definition. It went from being a disease characterized by fragility fractures to a condition marked by low bone mineral density, no fracture needed. Suddenly half of all post-menopausal women – and quite a few other people – were painted with the ominous diagnosis.