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Taking Calcium: What's a Woman to Do?

You may want to think twice before reaching for those calcium tablets. Earlier this year, researchers threw women of a certain age into a tizzy with research showing that calcium supplements may hurt the heart while helping bones.

The news unleashed widespread consternation, since many primary care physicians routinely advise menopausal women to take calcium to prevent osteoporosis.

Recent clinical trials followed people who took calcium supplements of 500 mg or more without vitamin D. * The results of the trials suggest a 31 percent increase in the risk of heart attack among participants. These results echo findings from research conducted in 2006 and 2008 among healthy, older women who took calcium supplements.

More Studies Needed

While the news may not be as dire as it sounds, some doctors are now advising women to replace calcium tabs with yogurt, broccoli and sardines.

"If you don't have a calcium deficiency, then avoid the supplements," said Loryn Feinberg, MD, a cardiologist at the CardioVascular Institute and director of its Women's Cardiovascular Health Program. "If you do require calcium, speak with your primary care physician about alternatives."

At the same time, Feinberg pointed out, "We need future studies to look at this more closely. For example, the trials involved calcium supplements without vitamin D. We have seen findings suggesting that vitamin D can lower the risk of heart disease, and there may indeed be a relationship between vitamin D deficiency and cardiac events."

Food Sources are Best

The good news is that the studies suggesting that calcium raises the risk of heart attacks point solely to calcium supplements. "Calcium obtained directly from food sources show no such risk," said Feinberg.

Given the fact that calcium supplements only have a modest effect on increasing bone density, Feinberg recommends obtaining calcium through food rather than supplements.

"Calcium obtained from dietary sources is best and offers better absorption."

Food sources for calcium include:

  • Dairy: yogurt, low-fat cheese and milk
  • Produce: spinach, kale, broccoli, turnip greens, bok choy, black beans, oranges
  • Protein: sardines, salmon, clams
  • Other: sesame seeds, almonds

In addition, Feinberg counsels women to avoid smoking cigarettes or being underweight, since both can reduce bone density. She also advises weight-bearing exercise. "Taking advantage of opportunities for weight-bearing exercise may be easier than you think. You can strengthen bone density through walking, yoga, dancing, golf, tennis and lifting weights."

*Conducted jointly by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, University of Aberdeen, UK and Dartmouth Medical School, NH, USA.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2010

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215