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Calcium and Your Heart Health
Osteoporosis (or thinning of the bones) is a major health concern for older adults. To try to improve bone health, calcium is routinely recommended for those over the age of 50 by doctors and other medical practitioners. However, two recent analyses suggest that calcium supplements may cause more harm than good by increasing the risk for heart attacks.
As reported in the British Medical Journal in 2010, an analysis of 11 studies including nearly 12,000 participants suggested that calcium supplements could increase the risk for heart attacks by as much as 30 percent. And although calcium is supposed to protect the bones, the benefit appears to be quite weak. In fact, on average, most studies show about a 10 percent drop in bone fractures when people take calcium pills. Unlike supplements, dietary calcium (from sources such as dairy, nuts, and green leafy vegetables) seems to have the opposite effect on the heart, as there is good evidence that choosing calcium-rich foods may actually reduce heart attack risk.
Since the studies referenced in the analysis used calcium without additional vitamin D, some questioned whether adding vitamin D might reduce the likelihood of heart complications. With this in mind, a second study, published in 2011 in the British Medical Journal evaluated the results of the Women’s Health Initiative Calcium/Vitamin D Supplementation Study. Over 36,000 women participated in the trial, overseen by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. The conclusion? Calcium supplements, with or without vitamin D, appeared to increase the risk of heart attack or stroke by as much as 20 percent.
Exactly why and how calcium supplements may affect heart disease risk is a matter of interest and speculation, but may be linked to the way the supplements abruptly increase blood levels of calcium, exposing the blood vessels to more calcium than they are designed to handle.
There is no question that calcium is important for our bone health, yet it appears once again that you just shouldn’t try to fool Mother Nature. If you have healthy bones, a Mediterranean diet along with regular weight-bearing exercise is the best way to maintain bone health. Smokers are at high risk for osteoporosis, so if you smoke, do everything in your power to quit. If your bones are already weak, talk to your doctor about medical therapies that can help to protect you. If you’ve been prescribed a calcium supplement, don’t stop it without discussing the pros and cons with your physician. While there is no perfect solution, it appears that relying on calcium supplements may not provide enough benefit to justify the risks.
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