Skip the Calcium Supplements? Yes.

Patient Expert

Flying in the face of everything we’ve heard over the years, researchers now conclude that calcium supplements – and/or increasing calcium intake via diet – does nothing to prevent bone fractures in people over the age of 50.

Calcium is good for you. Calcium keeps your bones strong. Make sure you get enough calcium in your diet.

We’ve heard this refrain for years – in print, on television, from our doctors. Especially as you age, calcium is key for maintaining bone strength, and thus for preventing fractures.

Turns out that that’s old information.

Increasing calcium doesn’t prevent fractures

BMJ.com, online arm of the British Medical Journal, recently reported the results of a meta-analysis of calcium studies carried out by Dr. Ian Reid and colleagues at the University of Auckland (New Zealand). Researchers analyzed 59 different trials studying the relationship between calcium intake, bone mineral density (BMD), and fracture.

And what did that analysis show? Maintaining a certain level of calcium in your body, either by supplement or diet, does increase BMD somewhat. But that increased bone density doesn’t translate to resistance to fractures: study subjects with higher calcium levels were no less likely to experience a broken bone than those with lower levels.

Breast cancer survivors: now what?

If you’ve been through breast cancer treatment, especially as an older woman, chances are you’ve experienced BMD loss: “bone thinning.”

Aromatase inhibitors, drugs taken for years after active treatment to help prevent a recurrence, are the chief culprit. But some types of chemotherapy can lower BMD as well. And even cancer itself can affect bone health: breast cancer increases the survivor’s level of osteoclasts, cells that break down bones.

Thus the calcium chews; the careful study of juices and cereals in the supermarket aisle to see which contain the most calcium; the mid-morning yogurt snack.

As survivors we’re often encouraged to go beyond the normal calcium recommendation of 1200mg daily; my goal was always 1500mg. And for years, I popped a supplement to meet that goal. Now, it turns out I may have been doing myself more harm than good.

Calcium supplements can be dangerous

Calcium supplements (1,000mg daily) have been shown to increase the incidence of heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, and kidney stones. (I’ve experienced kidney stones, and trust me, you don’t want to go there.)

In recent years, people have been encouraged to get the calcium they need through diet, rather than supplements.

Now, it turns out preventing bone fracture isn’t a valid reason for eating a calcium-rich diet, either. So if calcium’s off the table, what’s the best way to keep bones strong as we age?

Maintaining bone health

Exercise, exercise, exercise Weight-bearing exercises are especially critical for bone health. Think lifting weights, dancing, jogging, step aerobics, and active games like tennis. While walking, cycling, and swimming aren’t as effective at building bone mass, they’re better than nothing – so if those are your preferences, keep on pursuing them.

Also, don’t smoke; these days, that’s a given. But breast cancer survivors should also avoid alcohol as much as possible. Not only does it increase bone loss; it raises your risk of recurrence.

Vitamin D, calcium’s usual companion, is still a recommended supplement. Most of us don’t get enough vitamin D via natural sources. And not only is it key to many essential bodily functions, some research shows it lowers risk of breast cancer recurrence. So continue taking your daily vitamin D.

But calcium? If you’re looking to avoid that broken hip or spine fracture, forget it.

See more helpful articles:

A Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment

Stay Healthy – Keep Moving!

Breast Cancer and Osteoporosis: Beware the Connection

Sources

Fox, Maggie. "Dairy, Supplements Do Little For Bones, Study Finds." NBC News. September 30, 2015. Accessed October 18, 2015. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/diet-fitness/calcium-supplements-or-dairy-doesnt-strengthen-bones-study-finds-n435726.

Reid, Ian. "Calcium Intake and Bone Mineral Density: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis." Hwadmin. September 29, 2015. Accessed October 17, 2015. http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4183.

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.