Strong bones are so important as you age. Not only do they allow you to remain mobile, but they can keep you out of the hospital too. Strong bones are harder to break and, as a result, can protect you against fractures. Any fracture is bad news when you’re a senior, but a hip fracture can be especially so. Hip fractures account for extended hospital stays and the permanent loss of mobility for many seniors.
To help prevent bones from weakening, it may seem like good advice to recommend that you take calcium supplements. After all, who knows how much calcium you’re actually getting when you consume foods like milk, yogurt, or cheese? Better not to leave things to chance and take a calcium supplement formulated with a precise dose.
A recently published report in the New England Journal of Medicine is questioning the logic in this reasoning, however, saying that food sources of calcium are preferable over supplements when it comes to strengthening bones.
Part of the reason researchers from the University of California are steering you away from calcium supplements is because these supplements were found to up the risk for heart attacks in people who took them regularly. It’s safer, the researchers concluded, to ditch the supplements in favor of calcium-rich foods.
Other studies have pointed to a link between calcium supplements and cardiovascular health too. One such study, conducted at Uppsala University in Sweden, investigated the link between long term dietary calcium intake vs. calcium supplements and death from all causes.
This was a large trial in which 61,433 women (born between 1914 and 1948) were followed for an average of 19 years. The researchers found, compared with intakes between 600 and 1,000 milligrams/day, those above 1,400 mg/day were associated with higher death rates from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and ischemic heart disease (though not from stroke).
In another study, researchers from the National Cancer Institute looked at data from nearly 400,000 women and men. The study participants were between the ages of 50 and 71 years old and were enrolled in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study.
During 12 years of follow up, the research team found that 51% of men and 70% of women were taking calcium supplements. In the men, supplemental calcium intake was associated with an elevated risk for heart disease death. They found there was no association for women.
If you want to avoid taking high doses of supplemental calcium, you can boost your intake of calcium-rich foods. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, and milk contain some calcium. For those trying to reduce their consumption of dairy or who are lactose-intolerant, there are a few good non-dairy sources of the mineral. These foods include:
- Sesame seeds
- Collard greens
If you do take calcium supplements (preferably around 600 mg/d to avoid high doses), note that your body needs lysine to absorb the mineral. Lysine is an amino acid found in cheese, eggs, fish, lima beans, milk, potatoes, red meat, soy, and brewer’s yeast. You also need adequate vitamin D for proper calcium uptake.
“Skip the calcium pills, opt for kale and dairy: study,” CTV News web site, Oct. 23, 2013; http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/skip-the-calcium-pills-opt-for-kale-and-dairy-study-1.1509801, last accessed Nov. 13, 2013.
Xiao, Q., et al., “Dietary and supplemental calcium intake and cardiovascular disease mortality: the National Institutes of Health-AARP diet and health study,” JAMA Intern Med. April 2013; 173(8): 639-46.
Michaelsson, K., et al., “Long term calcium intake and rates of all cause and cardiovascular mortality: community based prospective longitudinal cohort study,” BMJ. February 12, 2013; 346: f228.