DNC News

DNC News: The Calcium Studies, DUH!

February 24, 2006

Subject: It comes as no surprise that calcium is no miracle cure for osteoporosis.


With great fanfare the Women's Health Initiatives Study was released February 16, in the New England Journal of Medicine and prompted headlines such as the New York Times' which read, “Big Study Finds No Clear Benefit of Calcium Pills.” This seven year 18 million dollar study paid for by our federal government apparently was meant to prove that calcium with a little bit of vitamin D was the cure for osteoporosis. It turns out that it isn't. This comes as no surprise; the real question is why anyone thought it would.


In our files there is a ‘patient handout' on osteoporosis. Written in May of 1992, long before this study was begun (and borrowing heavily from Alan Gaby, MD), I wrote,

“……However it is increasingly clear that calcium is not enough. There is no question that calcium deficiency can cause osteoporosis. However skeletal calcium depletion is present in only about 25% of osteoporotic women. Calcium supplements have been found to increase bone mass in these women only but have little effect on the other 75% who are not calcium deficient.”


Calcium supplements might be useful in one in four women. The focus should include nutrients which increase the trabecular strength of the bones especially vitamin K, boron, strontium and high doses of Vitamin D.


In this new study, 18,176 women were given calcium (1,000 mg daily) and vitamin D (400 IU daily) in 2 divided doses per day and 18,106 got a placebo. After seven years only 59% of the women were still taking the pills regularly (80% of the time). For those women who were still taking the pills, there was a 29% decrease in hip fractures. In simple words, taking calcium and vitamin D most of the time resulted in a third less hip fractures. This doesn't sound like, “no clear benefit.” It actually sounds pretty good, about what one should have predicted going into the study. Actually even a little better than what we might have predicted.


Was it the total miracle cure hoped for? No, but it was clearly helpful for some. Reducing hip fractures by 29% in an at risk population sounds good.


Given this new data I see no reason to change the suggestion for most women to take a calcium supplement. Women should not think though that taking calcium will prevent osteoporosis. Those at high risk for fractures should consider a more complete nutritional protocol, one that includes strontium, vitamin K-2 and vitamin D.


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