To Supplement or Not to Supplement

Do you take calcium and vitamin D supplements? If you’re a woman over 60, chances are you do. More than half of women in this age range take these dietary supplements, and for good reason. Fully 80% of the 10 million people in the US with osteoporosis—a debilitating disease marked by porous, fragile bones—are women. Another 37%–50% of women over 50 have osteopenia (low bone mass). Both conditions put sufferers at risk for bone fractures, which can take longer to heal as you age and can cause major mobility problems, and sometimes death.

So when the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently recommended that postmenopausal women should stop taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, it caused some confusion. The USPSTF concluded that the small risk of kidney stones associated with taking calcium and vitamin D outweighs the protection against bone fractures that most postmenopausal women receive from the supplements.

ACOG and the Institute of Medicine recommend that women over 50 get 1200 mg/day of calcium and 600 IU/day of vitamin D (800 IU/day in women 71 and older). The National Osteoporosis Foundation has similar recommendations.

While the debate continues, there are a few facts we can all agree on:

  • Calcium is a nutrient that’s vital to bone health and vitamin D helps the body to use it efficiently
  • It’s important that women get enough of these bone-protecting nutrients
  • Supplements can help you reach optimal levels, but they don’t replace the need for eating a variety of foods with calcium and vitamin D

The average American only gets 500 to 750 mgs of calcium each day, far short of the recommended daily intake. You can increase your daily levels by eating calcium-rich foods such as lowfat dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk), dark leafy greens (kale, collards, spinach), and canned fish with soft bones (salmon and sardines). You can get more vitamin D by eating fortified foods such as milk or cereal, or aiming for 15 minutes of sun exposure on your hands and face or arms a few days each week. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, tennis, dancing, yoga, or tai chi, can help strengthen bones, too.

For some women, certain types of hormone therapy and other medications containing bisphosphonates, estrogen, and calcitonin can also help prevent fractures. Talk to your doctor. He or she can determine whether you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D, suggest a supplement to make up for what you’re missing in diet alone, or help choose a medication that may work for you.

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