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Friday, July 06, 2012

Are calcium supplements safe?

New research is prompting questions about the safety of the calcium supplements that so many women age 50 and older take to strengthen their bones. One recent study suggests these pills raise a person's risk for a heart attack, and another new study—scheduled to be presented next month—is expected to raise more safety questions, continuing the debate that erupted this summer.
The controversy began in July when the British Medical Journal published a study that raised troubling questions about the calcium supplements taken by millions of Americans to ward off the bone thinning that comes as we age.

This latest research may call into question the popular practice of getting calcium from pills, but it has not suggested any heart risk from calcium in the diet. Researchers say that may be because food doesn't cause the same temporary, short-term boost in blood calcium as supplements. The authors say this boost produces calcium deposits that may harden the blood vessels or make the blood more likely to clot.

But U.S. doctors widely recommend calcium supplements, especially to postmenopausal women at risk for osteoporosis—thinning and fractured bones—and some say the evidence linking the pills to heart risk is not yet persuasive enough to change that policy. "I don't think it's enough to tell our patients to stop using calcium," says Lynne Braun, a researcher and nurse practitioner who counsels patients on cardiovascular risk at the Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "I personally use calcium supplementation. Would I stop based on this [study]? The answer is no."

Braun says the new study suffers from the usual shortcomings of meta-analysis, a statistical method that pools data from a variety of studies that haven't necessarily gathered information on the same questions or in the same ways.

Where's the vitamin D?

Others argue that the recent analysis is all but irrelevant, since it excluded patients also taking vitamin D, which may protect the heart by helping the body absorb calcium, and which is nearly always prescribed along with calcium supplements. "The field has moved on from the calcium-alone issue to the combination of calcium and vitamin D, because they work in concert to protect bones," says Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., director of the USDA Nutrition Center at Tufts University in Boston.
The Women's Health Initiative, a national study involving 36,000 participants, looked at women taking both calcium and vitamin D, and in 2006 reported no overall cardiovascular effects from the supplements.

What are the benefits?

Despite the widespread use of calcium supplements for bone health, there remains some debate about just how useful they are in preventing fractures. A 2006 report on data from the Women's Health Initiative found no statistically significant reduction in fractures among healthy postmenopausal women taking calcium and vitamin D, although women over age 60 who closely followed their supplement regimens did suffer fewer hip breaks. Meanwhile, this 2006 report suggested the pills might promote kidney stones, which can be quite painful.

On the other hand, says Weinerman, even the potential risk of kidney stones, to say nothing of cardiovascular risk, argues for greater caution against the overuse of calcium pills. Though the average American diet is deficient in calcium, he says he often sees patients whose eating habits, combined with excessive supplementation, give them more calcium than they need (about 1,200 mg daily for people 50 and above, according to Institute of Medicine guidelines). "That doesn't make any sense."

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