More Calcium May Not Mean Fewer Fractures in Seniors

A pair of reviews suggest the mineral may not be as helpful as once believed.

Medically reviewed in December 2021

Increasing calcium intake has always been popular advice for strengthening your bones—but the connection between the two may be crumbling. Some scientists have suggested that guidelines recommending seniors boost their daily calcium consumption may not help prevent bone loss as much as previously thought.

Currently, seniors are advised to get 1,000 to 1,200 mcg of calcium daily. But is it doing any good?

For a pair of scientific reviews published in September 2015 in BMJ, New Zealand researchers delved into over 100 studies to try to answer that question. One review looked at whether increased calcium from food or supplements protected against fractures, and the other tried to find out if more calcium really boosted bone density. The conclusion? Calcium didn't make that big of an impact.

Seeing if calcium counts
In one analysis, boosting calcium intake seemed to increase in bone density, but only by 1 to 2 percent, which researchers said wasn't enough to make a difference in fracture risk. Their other analysis supported that assertion—that extra calcium wasn’t associated with fewer bone breaks.

In fact, the researchers explained that an excess of calcium from supplements could do more harm than good. In some cases, patients may experience gastrointestinal problems—think constipation—as well as a small increase in risk for kidney stones and heart attacks. And there’s some evidence that taking calcium without vitamin D could actually raise your chances of a hip fracture.

The reviews are noteworthy for both older patients and healthcare providers (HCPs)—many of whom believe the more calcium, the better—and for patients who live with osteoporosis, a joint condition that leads to weaker and brittle bones with age.

But not everyone agrees with the findings. Supporters for added calcium claim that benefits do show up in studies where patients take calcium supplements for a longer time. Plus, they argue, supplements can help fill in gaps when people don’t get enough calcium from foods. 

Should I cut ties with calcium?
If you’re confused with the back and forth about calcium, you’re not the only one. More research is needed to pin down just how much calcium people truly need for healthy bones. And don’t forget: You still need calcium for other functions in the body, like regulating blood pressure, blood clotting and nerve signals.

Your best plan: Talk to your HCP about how much calcium is right for you, and how you should get it. Make sure to get enough of other bone-building nutrients, too, including vitamin K and vitamin D. Physical activity is also a must; weight-bearing activities like walking, jogging and resistance training will help keep your bones strong.

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