Women's Health

Panel Nixes Supplements for Bone Health

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says that older women should not take low doses of calcium and vitamin D supplements to help prevent fractures. The panel is still weighing what to recommend on higher supplement doses.

Photo of an older woman taking a pill

The proposed recommendations came as a shock to many, as women have been told to take calcium and vitamin D supplements for years.

Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, explains that the research just doesn't support taking supplements.

"What we're really seeing is no role for calcium for the prevention of osteoporotic fractures," Dr. Steinbaum says. "At this point, there's no reason to be taking calcium."

Disagreement on impact

But other experts say the recommendations are preliminary and unlikely to change people's behavior right away. Millions of women will continue to take vitamin D supplements with or without calcium in the hopes of avoiding fractures as they age.

Shiri Levy, M.D., at West Bloomfield Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan, says data from the landmark Women's Health Initiative show that women on supplements have fewer fractures. Information from a recent study in Switzerland supports those findings, she says.

In fact, the Swiss study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that taking 800 international units (IU) or more of vitamin D daily cut the risk for hip fractures in older women by 30 percent. Previous research has shown that half of postmenopausal women will end up with such a fracture.

Fall prevention

The USPSTF recommendations seem to agree that vitamin D could be useful in preventing falls in people 65 or older who are already at increased risk of falling.

Women at average risk for osteoporosis should have a baseline bone density scan at age 65. Those who have risk factors, however, should have a baseline test done when they go through menopause.

If you are at risk for osteoporosis, experts say you should eat a healthy diet that includes foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. You should also do weight-bearing exercises to help build strong bones.

How much calcium do you need? The recommended calcium intake for adults 51 to 70 years old is 1,000 to 1,200 mg a day. If you're older than 70, you may need more. Check with your doctor to get a recommendation on supplements based on your particular situation.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

National Osteoporosis Foundation - Vitamin D and Bone Health

Office of Dietary Supplements - Calcium

Office of Dietary Supplements - Vitamin D

August 2012

Are You at Risk for Osteoporosis?

Although doctors don't know the exact medical cause for osteoporosis, they do know that several factors can contribute to its development. These are some of the main risk factors:

  • Age. As you get older, your bones become weaker and less dense.

  • Race. White and Asian women are at highest risk, although all races may develop the disease.

  • Body weight. People who are slim have less muscle mass and thus are at greater risk for less bone mass.

  • Lifestyle factors. If you're inactive, smoke, or drink excessive alcohol or caffeine, you're at higher risk. If your diet is low in calcium or vitamin D, you're also at higher risk.

  • Certain medications. Using medications like steroids for a long time may increase your risk.

  • Family history of bone disease. Having a family member with the disease raises your own risk.

Osteoporosis is often called the "silent disease" because you may not have any symptoms until a bone breaks. Some people may have pain in their bones and muscles, particularly in their back. Occasionally, a collapsed vertebra may cause severe pain, a decrease in height, or deformity in the spine.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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