A recently study published in the journal Heart suggests that taking calcium supplements may significantly increase a person’s risk of having a heart attack. But this is a prime example of the type of flawed population studies I have often noted.
This European researcher studied 23,980 people to see if calcium intake, especially from supplements, had any effect on heart attack or stroke risk. The study concluded that people who used calcium supplements did increase their risk, but dietary calcium had no negative
At that point, newspapers and other media outlets carried the story as presented. But of course, it is impossible to know all the variables involved in the complex lives of 23,980 people, especially when they are followed for 11 years. Further analysis of this study confirms my skepticism.
First, the women who were taking the supplements were more likely to have a lower level of education and to smoke. Despite attempts to adjust for these risk factors, they still have an impact on the results.
Second, those taking the calcium supplements were not taking other vitamins and minerals, which would mean vitamin D deficiencies would be much more likely (in fact, almost assured). A low intake of multivitamins and magnesium would greatly increase the risk of inflammation and free radical damage to arteries.
Third, the actual number of heart attacks was quite small — only seven cases among the calcium users.
Fourth — one of the major flaws — the researchers allowed people with pre-existing cardiovascular diseases into the study, which means some may have already been close to having a heart attack at the time the study began. If those people fell more often in the calcium supplement group, then the results tell us nothing.
Finally, the researchers did not record or consider the dose of the calcium supplements, which can be vital.
This is not to say that taking calcium supplements alone is safe. A large number of other studies (including animal studies and in vitro studies) have found that calcium can be a major trigger for inflammation and free radical generation, and even trigger cell death. It also plays a central role in excitotoxicity and drives the growth and invasion of cancers.
In addition, as we age, more calcium leaks into our cells, triggering these destructive reactions. However, in proper doses it has been shown to protect the heart, improve muscle function and even protect the brain.
I am opposed to people, especially the elderly, taking large doses of calcium supplements. Foods can supply most of the calcium requirements we need. However, I don’t think people should get calcium from milk. Spinach, kale, and many other vegetables are high in calcium content and better for you than milk.
If a person does take calcium supplements, they should be no more than 250 mg a day, and should be taken with at least 2,000 IU of vitamin D3.
What we learn from this example is that a large population study may hint at a problem, but can never prove its cause. Only by correlating it with basic science studies and animal studies can we get a clear picture of the risk.
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