Women: Calcium, Vit D Supplements Good for Bones
Consumer confusion over vitamin D and calcium seems likely to grow,
following claims from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) trial about their
effect on bone health that oppose other studies. The combination of vitamin
D and calcium has long been recommended to reduce the risk of bone fracture
for older people, particularly those at risk of or suffering from
osteoporosis, which is estimated to affect about 75 million people in
Europe, the USA and Japan.
Use of these supplements is widely accepted by the general public, with
calcium reported to be the biggest seller in the US supplements industry,
with annual sales of about $993 (?836) million in 2004, according to the
Nutrition Business Journal. The new study poses a challenge to this
acceptance by concluding that calcium and vitamin D supplements did not
reduce the risk of fractures in post-menopausal women.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 354, pp. 669-683),
the study followed 36,282 post-menopausal women with an average age of 62
at the start of the trial. Volunteers were randomly assigned to receive
1000 mg of elemental calcium in the carbonate form and 400 IU of vitamin D3
per day, or a placebo. After an average of seven years of follow-up the
scientists reported: "Among healthy postmenopausal women, calcium with
vitamin D supplementation resulted in a small but significant improvement
in hip bone density, and did not significantly reduce hip fracture."
Such a sweeping generalization is somewhat misleading however. If one looks
just at the 59 percent of the participants who actually adhered to the
supplementation program (assuming 80 percent or more compliance with taking
the supplements), the data do, in fact, highlight the benefits of dual
vitamin D-calcium supplementation.
The number of fractures in this compliant group was 29 percent lower than
placebo. This indicates that supplementation with calcium and vitamin D did
significantly reduce the risk of hip fracture, as has been reported by
other studies, but only if taken regularly. The bone mineral density of the
entire intervention group increased by 0.86 percent after six years, and
for those followed-up for nine years, BMD increased by 1.06 percent.
The strengths of this study lie in the large-scale, randomized,
double-blind, placebo-based design. However the authors recognize that
adherence to an intervention using a free-living population is difficult.
Indeed, even though the placebo group was not given the supplements by the
researchers, they were free to use supplements on their own. Sixty-four
percent of the placebo group had a daily calcium intake of at least 800 mg
from diet and supplements, and 42 percent were consuming at least 400 IU of
This suggests that the intervention and control groups were very similar.
With both groups consuming calcium and vitamin D, this could explain why
the incidence of overall fractures was less than envisaged - the actual hip
fracture rate was more than half that projected by the researchers. "The
lower-than-projected hip-fracture rate reduced the power of the study to
approximately 48 percent," wrote the research team, led by Rebecca Jackson
from Ohio State University.
In an accompanying editorial, Joel Finkelstein from the Massachusetts
General Hospital rightly points out: "There were several aspects of the
study design and characteristics of the study population that may have
reduced the chances of detecting a benefit of calcium and vitamin D." It
should be pointed out that many of the women were involved in the other
arms of the WHI trial, with 69 percent of the women enrolled on the Dietary
Modification trial, 54 percent enrolled on the Hormone Therapy trial, and
14 percent enrolled on both.
"The use of hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) among post-menopausal women
has declined dramatically [HRT is known to be potent against bone
resorption and weakening and can reduce bone fracture]. Thus, the
widespread use of HRT in the current study limits the ability to generalize
the results," he said.
Another limitation, the dose of vitamin D might have been too small to
initiate a response for all participants. Other studies have reported no
effect with 400 IU, but benefits have been reported for trials using doses
of 600 IU or more. However, it seems plausible that the dose was not as
significant as adherence to the program. The data clearly show that women
who regularly took the vitamins had a 29 percent reduction in hip
Finkelstein finishes a well-balanced editorial by concluding: "It seems
reasonable that women consume the recommended daily levels of calcium and
vitamin D through diet, supplements, or both. But one message is clear:
calcium with vitamin D supplementation by itself is not enough to ensure
optimal bone health."
This statement was echoed by Roger Francis, Professor of Geriatric Medicine
at the University of Newcastle, who told NutraIngredients.com: "This study
shows that vitamin D and calcium supplementation would not work as a public
health measure, because vitamin D - calcium trials have notoriously poor
Professor Francis pointed out however that an earlier French study (Scand J
Rheumatol Suppl. 1996 Vol. 103, pp. 75-78) reported that calcium and
vitamin D supplements given to elderly women significantly reduced the risk
of hip fracture. This sample population was much older than the WHI
The current EU recommended daily intake of calcium is 800 mg, with an upper
safe limit of 2500 mg. Vitamin D has a RDI of 400 IU, although campaigners
are calling for an increase to 1000 IU, half the upper safe limit
recommended by the EU and US. In the US, the DRI (dietary reference intake)
for calcium is 1000mg for adults aged 19 to 50, and 1200mg from 51 to 70.
For vitamin D it is five micrograms per day, rising to 10 after the age of
50. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, the total
direct cost of osteoporotic fractures is 31.7 billion euros ($37.6) in
Europe, and $17.5 (?14.7) billion in the US (2002 figure).
An important point to keep in mind is that data clearly show that women who
regularly took the vitamins had a 29 percent reduction in hip fractures.
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