People assume that the brittle bone disease osteoporosis only affects elderly people. But signs can show as early as in one's 20s.

Siobhan Ryan looks at how tests for the condition are carried out and how people can stop it from developing further.

Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease that causes thinning of the bones which can lead to frailty and fractures.

One in three women and one in 12 men will develop this disease during their lifetime and the condition is increasing by ten per cent a year,costing the NHS about £940 million.

There are more than 200,000 fractures caused by the disease each year in the UK, the equivalent of a broken bone every three minutes.

The majority of people in their 20s and early 30s don't even think about the disease and so continue with their lifestyle, little knowing that they may already have contracted the condition.

Doctors believe there are a number of reasons why the condition is on the increase. These include the children who came along too late to benefit from free school milk, abolished in the Seventies, and who are now in their 30s.

Nowadays people are at far greater risk of developing the bone-thinning disease than ever before because of unhealthy eating habits. There are also thousands of women who dieted their way through their teens and 20s.

Next month in Brighton, people will be able to have a simple, low-cost, painless test using an ultrasound machine that can be carried out to see what condition their bones are in.

The test is to be carried out by nutritionist Patricia Hawes who is visiting the city on March 29 and will be at the Private Medical Direct offices in Kemp Town.

If the scheme proves to be popular,then more visits will be arranged for the Sussex area. Mrs Hawes visits doctors' surgeries, businesses, gyms and health clubs in an effort to raise awareness of the condition and make the machine more accessible.

The test involves placing a foot in the bottom of the machine which is then switched on and gentle probes come out to touch strategic points on the heel.

The heel bone contains a high percentage of the kind of bone most affected by osteoporosis.

Mrs Hawes will then ask the patient questions about the amount of exercise they do each week, their weight, age and shoe size. A computer print-out shows if the person's bone density for their age is excellent, normal or below average.

If it shows below average, it is an indication that some bone degeneration has taken place. But if caught early enough, it is treatable. "We have had the machine for several months and have taken it across the country with us," says Mrs Hawes.

"People have been very interested as most tests are done at hospitals and can cost a lot more money than schemes like this. "The NHS simply cannot afford to carry out routine general screening unless there is a specific concern. "We picked up a problem with one person in their early 20s who had no idea there was anything wrong.

"They have now changed their diet and lifestyle. "It is a simple test and only takes a short while but it could make a major difference to people's lives in later years.

"The condition is treatable, it is just a matter of catching it as early as possible. Unfortunately, in most cases, the first sign that there is something wrong is when a bone breaks.

"But if a person knows they are showing a tendency towards the condition then they can do something about it.

"People are leading a very sedentary lifestyle these days, which does not help. They often spend their days in front of a computer then get into a car and go home before sitting in front of the television."

The best way to treat osteoporosis is to have a high-calcium diet involving milk,cheese,oily fish and green-leafed vegetables. As well as diet, weight bearing exercises like jogging, brisk walking and aerobics can also help reduce risk of fracture by improving the density of the bones. Repetitive pounding actually stimulates new bone formation and also causes the muscle fibres to pull on the bones they're attached to, making them denser over time.

Four recommendations made by doctors about staving off osteoporosis are as follows:

Have a balanced diet with an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.

Boost your diet with supplements if you are unable to eat dairy products.

Maintain an active lifestyle and do regular weight-bearing exercise.

Stop smoking and reduce alcohol intake to a moderate level.

For more details about next month's testing session call the Private Medical Direct offices in Arundel Place on 01273 628021.