Calcium is key to strong bones for a lifetime

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Drink your milk—it’s often a message to children, but adults can also benefit from this advice.

Drinking milk—and for that matter—eating yogurt, leafy green vegetables, nuts, seafood, and fortified juices and cereals are all great ways to boost your daily intake of calcium, a mineral that plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s structure and function. Calcium builds bones and keeps them strong. It also helps muscles to contract, blood to clot, and your heart to pump.

Getting enough calcium combats the bone loss that naturally increases with age. This is especially important for women, who are much more likely than men to have problems related to weak bones. Eighty percent of the 10 million Americans who have osteoporosis, a debilitating disease marked by porous, fragile bones, are women. Another 37 percent–50 percent 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, or sometimes death.

You may be at higher risk if you have a personal or family history of bone fractures, eat a diet low in calcium, do not exercise, weigh 127 pounds or less, have a history of falls, are Caucasian, are in poor health, or use alcohol and tobacco. Regardless of whether risk factors are present, many women are unaware that their bones are brittle until they break one. To prevent fractures and identify bone weakness, ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) recommends that women age 65 and older or women who have had a fracture be tested for bone mineral density. Postmenopausal women with one or more risk factors for osteoporosis should also be tested.

The average American only gets 500 to 750 milligrams of calcium each day, far short of the recommended daily intake. Premenopausal women, or menopausal women who take estrogen, need 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. Post-menopausal women who do not take estrogen should get 1,500 milligrams. Daily intake of vitamin D, the fat soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium, should be between 200 and 600 IUs (International Units) depending on a woman’s age. Drink milk, eat vitamin D-fortified foods, or get 15 minutes of sun exposure on your hands and face or arms a few days a week to ensure you get enough. Your doctor can also suggest a calcium and vitamin D supplement if you don’t get enough from your diet alone.

You can further help strengthen bones by engaging in weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, tennis, dancing, yoga, or tai chi. Additionally, certain types of hormone therapy and other drugs containing bisphosphonates, estrogen, and calcitonin can also help prevent fractures. Talk to your doctor about medications that may work for you. ♀

Gerald F. Joseph, Jr, MD, is president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.