Doctors have long recommended that women of a certain age take calcium supplements to help prevent bone fractures. However, new research suggests that taking in more calcium may not have a big impact on bone health.
The new information comes from two studies from New Zealand researchers, published this week in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Both studies involved a review of about a hundred other studies which looked at calcium intake and bone health.
The first study looked at the effect of women and men over the age of 50 who supplemented their diet with calcium supplements. It turns out the calcium did improve bone mineral density, with an increase of about 1-2 percent after five years. While this is encouraging, the researchers conclude that it would have little effect on reducing bone fracture. Although the supplements did improve bone density, it would just not be enough to make a big difference in their bone health.
The second study looked at the results of other studies on the link between taking in more dietary calcium and the risk of bone fracture. Although the general consensus is that eating more calcium will help prevent bone fracture, the researchers concluded there is no solid evidence to support that notion. Although one study seemed to support consuming more calcium to lower the risk of bone fracture, it had looked at a population that was more frail than the average senior, and they also had significant vitamin D deficiency, which is also associated with bone health.
Currently, guidelines suggest that post-menopausal women and older men consume about 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium per day, either from calcium supplements or from their diet. Doctors generally believe this will help this at-risk population decrease their chance of breaking a bone. However, the new studies seem to suggest that taking in more calcium will not significantly help seniors avoid fracturing their bones. In addition, there is a chance that calcium supplements can cause side effects like constipation, other gastrointestinal problems, an increased risk of heart attacks or kidney stones, high calcium levels in the body, or even hospitalization for health issues. In some cases, calcium supplements may be needed for medical reasons, but the studies seem to suggest that people not supplement their calcium intake just because they have reached a certain age.
As post-menopausal women and men age, they can develop osteoporosis. This is a loss of calcium from bones and a reduction in bone density, making bones weaker and more susceptible to fracture, even from a small bump or fall. Although bone is constantly broken down and rebuilt within the body, changing hormones over time can affect this process, causing bones to break down more than they rebuild. The thought is that since calcium is so important to bone structure, taking in more calcium would give bones the building blocks they need to improve their structure and strength. However, the evidence does not seem to support this theory.
Despite the study findings, there may be some who benefit from supplementing their diet with calcium and vitamin D. It is best for patients to talk to their doctors, who can perform tests to determine whether the patient actually has a calcium or vitamin D deficiency. In those cases, these supplements may be helpful.
There are other treatments that can help with osteoporosis besides taking calcium supplements. For example, medications like Aclasta and other bisphosphonates regulate bone loss. This gives bones a chance to build up, improving their strength and reducing the chance that a patient will easily break a bone. Although people should not load up on calcium supplements after a certain age without a doctor’s advice, it is best for them to visit their doctor to see what is best in their particular situation.