It is a worry for women over 40, many of whom take large doses of calcium to keep their bones strong after the menopause.
We’ve always been told that calcium is the key to lifelong bone health, but last week a German study found that it could also double your risk of suffering a heart attack. It is a worry for women over 40, many of whom take large doses to keep their bones strong after the menopause.
So should you ditch your calcium pills?
“There’s no need to panic, this study just confirms what we already knew — if you want to ward off weak bones as you age, you’re better off drinking a glass of milk a day and exercising more,” says Professor Dawn Skelton, an ageing and health specialist at Glasgow Caledonian University who works with Age UK.
She adds, “The problem is, big doses of calcium in tablet form flood the body in one hit, while calcium in food and drink is absorbed more slowly and is therefore a safer option.
“However, the heart attack risk identified in this study is actually pretty small and must be weighted against the fact that lots of us don’t get enough calcium in our diet.”
In the UK, half of all women and one in five men over the age of 50 will suffer a break because of bone weakness. And almost three million people are estimated to have the bone-thinning condition osteoporosis.
“Even our kids are at risk,” says Prof Skelton. “Junk food diets combined with sitting inside playing computer games means they’re not building strong bones at the crucial time and will be at risk in adulthood.”
Avoiding that big break
Osteoporosis occurs when our bones lose density and become weaker and more prone to breakages as we age. Women are more prone to it after the menopause because they produce smaller amounts of the hormone oestrogen, which helps bones absorb the calcium they need to stay strong.
Although osteoporosis isn’t a direct killer, the consequences of breaking a bone — particularly the hip — can contribute to premature death.
Five steps to strong bones
1. Eat properly
Getting 1,000mg of calcium a day is the first step — and you’re much better off doing this through diet if you can. The best food sources are low-fat dairy such as semi-skimmed milk and yoghurt, as well as bony fish, such as tinned salmon and sardines. Leafy green veg such as kale, broccoli and spinach are also rich in calcium. Dried fruits such as figs and currants and breakfast cereals fortified with calcium are also good sources.
2. Get more Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Although some is found in oily fish, our main source comes from the effect of sunlight on your skin. It’s estimated that half of us have a deficiency because we don’t get outside enough or because we always use sunblock. As part of its Sunlight Campaign, the National Osteoporosis Society is advising people to catch some rays between May and September to keep their vitamin D levels topped up. Just 10 minutes of sunlight a day on bare arms and your face can cut your risk of bone fractures by
3. The right moves
Another vital way to boost your bones is weight-bearing exercise —basically anything that has you upright and stretching your muscles. Good choices include aerobics, dancing or brisk walking. “Research shows that if you don’t exercise you end up weeing out all the calcium you take in instead of storing it in your bones,” warns Prof Skelton. “Ideally we should aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. “Put simply, the more hours we spend on our feet, the fewer bone breakages we should have in later life.”
4. Quit the cigs and booze
People who smoke have significantly lower bone density, while drinking more than seven alcoholic drinks a week can prevent your bones from absorbing the maximum nutrients from your food.
5. Watch your stress levels
“High levels of stress make the body produce the hormone cortisol, which causes bone loss,” says Prof Skelton. “Over a long period this can increase your risk of osteoporosis. Yoga, walking the dog or listening to music can all help bust stress.”