Why does it sometimes seem as though the medical community purposely wants to confuse, confound and worry us with a continuous flow of reports that are often at odds?
Another medical study was published this week that is a solid example, and which is confusing everyone, especially those of us over 50 who worry about osteoporosis, a debilitating disease that affects millions of Americans every year, costing billions of dollars in healthcare.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), each year, more than two million broken bones occur in the U.S. due to osteoporosis. For women, this incidence is greater than that of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. And, unless we take action, it is estimated that by 2020 more than 61 million Americans will suffer from osteoporosis or low bone mass.
The government advisory group behind the report that's making all the headlines this week --the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) -- questioned the benefits of vitamin D and calcium to prevent bone fractures when taken by healthy women. (To read the full report, click here.) However, many studies have shown that calcium is essential for bone growth and healthy maintenance, and vitamin D is necessary to absorb the calcium. (It should be noted that current research on vitamin D also suggests it may provide protection from high blood pressure, certain cancers, some autoimmune diseases and possibly even Alzheimer's.) And, of great importance to those who are taking osteoporosis medications, the meds don't work without proper amounts of calcium and vitamin D.
What's really confusing is that only last month a huge study was issued by the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) confirming that a combination of vitamin D3 and calcium every day not only offers tremendous health benefits, but is safe. The risk of hip fractures was reduced by a whopping 38 percent in women over 50, and, according to the study's authors, "Long-term use of calcium and vitamin D appears to confer a reduction that may be substantial in the risk of hip fracture among postmenopausal women."
Additionally, the WHI study reassured doctors and women worried about the potentially negative health impact vitamin D and calcium might have by showing that taken supplementally both are safe. In fact, the risk of kidney stones or urinary tract infections appear to be modest and not something average postmenopausal women need to be concerned about. To read the full report, click here.
We can probably get the calcium we need every day from the foods we eat, such as yogurt, cheese, almonds, tofu and green leafy vegetables (very much in keeping with the 'Mediterranean Diet'). However, getting enough vitamin D isn't as easy without supplementation. We would have to overeat or get too much sun, which has its own risks, to get the amount we need for good health.
I started taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D every day a few years ago after it was discovered that I had low bone density which could be, if not dealt with, a few train stops away from osteoporosis. Along with that I added 1,000 mg of calcium and increased my intake of healthy calcium-rich foods, especially kale (one of the best foods you can eat). Push-ups, running and other exercises to strengthen my bones stopped the progression, and actually reversed it. There's no question in my mind that this combination works, and it worries me that people will read the media reports of the USPSTF study and chuck their supplies of vitamin D and calcium tablets in the garbage.
What should we do?
I talked with the people at the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the leading organization dedicated to the prevention of osteoporosis, to get their response to the study and their current recommendations. Dr. Robert Recker, M.S., NOF President, said:
Everyone needs to get the recommended daily amount of calcium and vitamin D to enjoy good overall health and especially bone health. My concern is that the media's coverage of the USPTF recommendations is not balanced with the important benefits of these nutrients and may lead individuals to stop taking the needed amount of calcium or vitamin D without consulting with their healthcare provider.
The NOF strongly recommends the following:
Women under age 50 get 1,000 mg of calcium from all sources daily and that women age 50 and older get 1,200 mg. For men, NOF recommends 1,000 mg of calcium daily for those age 70 and younger and 1,200 mg for men age 71 and older. For women and men under age 50, NOF recommends 400-800 IU of vitamin D and 800-1,000 IU for women and men age 50 and older.
There you have it. Don't be confused. Be smart. Read the studies but discuss your own personal health with your own doctor. And for sure, if you haven't already, schedule a bone density test.
It's your body. Own it.
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