Most of us know that calcium is critical for strong, healthy bones. As an essential building block of bone tissue, calcium is a natural go-to for giving our bones a little boost. This is especially true as we age, when our bones can become weaker and more brittle. The worry point is when the brittleness reaches a level where fractures are much more likely, a stage we call osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis is a common and potentially dangerous condition, affecting 10 million Americans and resulting in approximately 2 million fractures every year, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Women are more prone to the disease because they have thinner bones than men do. In addition, during menopause women lose estrogen, a hormone that protects against bone loss.
Given what we know about the risks of fractures, calcium supplements—along with Vitamin D to assist with absorption—could seem like an obvious solution for maintaining bone health. As a result, many older Americans take calcium supplements to protect themselves against osteoporosis.
But, as is the case with all medicinal treatment, the decision to use supplements should be based on a careful evaluation of the benefits and risks. And in recent years, concerns have been raised about whether the risks involved with taking calcium supplements outweigh the benefits.
Are the benefits worth it?
In 2018, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—an independent body charged with making evidence-based recommendations for clinical preventive care—found that for most people, there is not enough evidence to say that calcium supplements help to protect bones.
But even if there is no clear data to say calcium supplements help, they likely won’t hurt, right? Unfortunately, in some cases, calcium may indeed be harmful.
The most common risk associated with calcium supplements is kidney stones. As we increase the amount of calcium in our bodies, there is a higher risk of calcium forming crystals and creating kidney stones.
Other studies suggest more surprising and insidious side effects. One such study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2016, showed an association between calcium supplements and plaque buildup in the arteries—a potential precursor to a heart attack.
Whether you decide to take supplements or not, remember that there are other ways to take care of your bones or get calcium. Exercise, especially weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises, helps keep bones strong. Eating well is also important: With dietary calcium, it is difficult to ingest enough to cause some of the worrisome side effects. You can get calcium from many foods, including dairy products and leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale.
The bottom line is that supplements are not effective for everyone and come with potential health risks. Talking with your doctor is the best way to determine if you should take a calcium supplement. In any case, careful attention to healthy bones, and a conversation with your doctor about the factors that matter most to you, are both excellent steps toward a healthier you.
For more information on healthy living, visit the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group’s Staying Healthy page.