Calcium pills almost definitely are not making your bones stronger

Exercise helps. Pills may not.
Exercise helps. Pills may not.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Many people have swallowed the conventional wisdom that calcium and vitamin D supplements lead to stronger bones. But an analysis of studies covering more than 50,000 people suggests they do not.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a research team based in China examined the results of 33 trials, stretching back to 2006, studying the effects of calcium and vitamin D supplements. All subjects were adults over age 50 who lived independently (as opposed to in a residential care facility). The researchers found no relationship between supplement use and the risk of hip fractures, which pose a profound risk to older adults’ health and mobility.

It’s understandable that many believe calcium and vitamin D supplements would help improve bone health, because studies have shown that life-long inadequate calcium can lead to low bone mass and high fracture rates, and that inadequate vitamin D stops the body from effectively absorbing calcium. However, supplements do not seem to be the answer.

This is not the first study to cast doubt on the efficacy of calcium and vitamin D as a guard against broken bones. In 2013, the US Preventive Services Task Force advised older, independent-living women against taking calcium and vitamin D supplements to prevent fractures, citing a lack of evidence that the pill combo actually worked. Ken Harvey, a professor of preventive medicine at Australia’s Monash University, was even more blunt when asked about the usefulness of dietary supplements earlier this year.

“What you need is a good diet. You’re pissing the money down the toilet for no benefit,” he told an Australian broadcaster.

However, to say that all supplements are useless is as overly broad and unhelpful as the suggestion that any pill is a panacea. Individual needs differ. Calcium and vitamin D may help adults who aren’t getting good diets or regular time outdoors, the authors wrote.  But evidence suggests that a varied, healthy diet and regular exercise do more for your health than over-the-counter pills. Save the money on supplements and buy fresh vegetables instead.