What are the Benefits of Taking Calcium as a Senior?

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  • Should seniors take calcium supplements? Calcium is vital in the diets of older adults, whose bones can lose it with age. Are supplements right for you?
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Should Seniors Take Calcium Supplements?

According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, by Zhou et al., calcium taken as a supplement may have very limited value for older adults, specifically women, in preventing serious loss of bone density with age. The study’s authors found no significant link between women over age 50 taking daily calcium supplements and a reduction in osteoporosis or broken bones. The authors, along with the majority of the scientific community, agree that calcium is important, but they point out there’s no real difference between calcium from supplements and calcium you get from food.

Calcium as a Nutrient

Calcium is a vital nutrient in people’s diets. Your bones pull calcium from your blood to build up bones and teeth, and your cells use calcium as a tool to pump other vital nutrients through their membranes and keep your internal chemistry balanced. Most healthy adults are encouraged to consume around 1,000 mg of calcium daily, but this amount is dependent on your age and sex.

Most people with Western-style diets get all the calcium they need, plus a bit more, from their food. Adults who can tolerate dairy might get more calcium from milk, butter and cheese. It is uncommon for adults who don’t have other issues to suffer from low calcium.

The Risk of Not Having Enough Calcium

If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet every single day, you may not notice many consequences. Well-fed human bodies generally have a reserve of vital nutrients that can last for a few days without any particular problems developing. Chronic calcium deficiency, however, can eventually cause several problems with your health.

If you somehow go long enough without calcium to develop an actual deficiency, you could notice symptoms of several different disorders all happening at once. Lack of calcium can cause rickets, osteoporosis and osteopenia. In addition to these bone disorders, low calcium levels among ancient mariners and people who’ve escaped from Medieval dungeons can be associated with rapid heartbeat, chest pain, numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, brittle nails, painful muscle cramps, dry skin that comes away in flakes and rapid tooth decay.

Again, these conditions are exceedingly rare in developed countries because almost any diet at all includes enough calcium to prevent actual medical problems.

Seniors and Calcium

Seniors have medical issues unique to their age group, and low bone density is especially common among post-menopausal women. This is not due to a lack of calcium in the diet, however, but to a more subtle and complex process involving a gland in your chest called the thyroid.

The thyroid secretes a hormone that is, appropriately, called thyroid hormone (TH). Another gland, the parathyroid, does the same for parathyroid hormone (PTH). Your bones have small cells on their surfaces that suck calcium from your blood and lay it down as fresh bone. They use TH to do this. Other cells dissolve old bone and release calcium into your bloodstream using PTH. In the body of a young person, these processes are generally kept in balance.

As we age, the thyroid tends to wind down its production of TH, and bones get less efficient at growing a fresh surface. Levels of PTH, however, tend to stay high. Thus, older adults tend to have bone cells that strip more calcium out than can be put back in. If anything, this makes it likely that seniors may have more than the usual amount of calcium in their blood. Consuming more calcium, without the bone cells and TH to pack it into new bone layers, is unlikely to be very helpful for preventing osteoporosis.

Can You Take Too Much Calcium?

Too much calcium is not good. While the human body has an equilibrium it tries to maintain for most vitamins and minerals, and surplus nutrients tend to get flushed away in the urine or stored in fat cells, you can wind up with too much calcium in your system, especially if you are taking large doses of it in pill form.

At low levels, hypercalcification is known to cause constipation. While this is no fun, too much calcium can also interfere with your body’s ability to absorb both iron and zinc, which can cause some serious blood and nervous system issues if it happens to you. Oddly, adults who get too much calcium from supplements can easily develop kidney stones, though the National Institutes of Health is careful to note that this does not seem to happen when your extra calcium comes from eating food.

There is a less well-established link between older men who take too much calcium and prostate cancer, though this is not a firm connection and studies to confirm it are ongoing.

Questions for Your Doctor

If you are concerned about bone loss past a certain age, you aren’t alone. The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that the 10 million seniors in the United States who have the condition account for nearly 2 million broken bones each year. The issue for these unfortunate seniors is unlikely to be a lack of calcium in the diet, but a gradual deterioration of the bones in the hips. If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or you have concerns that you might be showing the signs of it, here are some questions to ask your doctor:

  • How certain are you that this is osteoporosis and not another condition?
  • Do I have other bone or nutritional issues to treat?
  • Should I change my diet?
  • What can I do to build bone density back up?
  • Are hormone supplements right for me?
  • What kinds of exercise are safe to do with this condition?
  • How can I slow the bone loss?
  • Do I have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), and if so what other symptoms should I watch for?
  • Should I take a thyroid pill?
  • Can you refer me to fall prevention resources and education?