Should seniors take calcium supplements? Should seniors take calcium-vitamin D supplements? When it comes to ensuring bone, cardiovascular, and overall health as you age, you’ve probably wondered if you’re getting enough of these two crucial vitamins and minerals.
Keep reading for all the information you need about supplementing calcium with vitamin D, including answers to common questions like “do calcium supplements help osteoporosis?”
Do Seniors Need Calcium Supplements?
Calcium is notoriously linked with bone health. Since bone fracture risk can increase with age and disability, it’s natural to ask whether a calcium supplement could help. The short answer from experts is that it depends.
Your body’s store of calcium can be viewed as a sort of bank account. Just like any other tissue, the tissue that makes up bones is constantly being remodeled, with mineral deposits being added or subtracted.
When your body doesn’t get enough calcium from the diet (i.e. dairy products), it begins to borrow calcium from the bones (and even teeth) to try and achieve balance in the body. Long term, this cycle can lead to brittle bones, increase the risk of falls or fractures, and ultimately cause low bone mass.
The Role of Calcium in Aging Adults
While peak bone mass can be fortified in the teen and young adult years, consuming enough calcium as an elderly person can ensure bones remain strong and healthy.
Not only does calcium help bones stay strong, but it also contributes to keeping the following parts of your body healthy:
In older adults, calcium is even more critical. Low bone mass is considered a risk factor for osteoporosis, a condition where bones become weak.
How Much Calcium Do Seniors Need?
The recommended daily amounts (RDAs) for calcium for those aged 50 years or older are as follows:
- Men ages 51-70: 1,000 mg per day
- Women ages 51-70: 1,200 mg per day
- Adults ages 71 and older: 1,200 mg per day
Keep in mind that while calcium intake is important, taking too much calcium also has its risks. Excessive calcium intake can cause digestive discomfort, increase risk of kidney stones, and has even been associated with heart problems. To avoid adverse effects, stick to the RDA for calcium each day between diet and supplements.
There are also many different types of calcium supplements, each including a different amount of elemental calcium (the amount of calcium actually used by the body). Working with a dietitian can help you find what type and amount of calcium supplement is right for you. Two common forms of calcium are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate.
Do Calcium Supplements Help Osteoporosis?
Your body doesn’t make calcium on its own, so it gets the calcium it needs from calcium in the diet. In some cases, dietary calcium doesn’t provide the body with enough calcium and a supplement is needed. A supplement can also help fortify the body against bone loss.
Absorption of calcium can decrease 15-20% with age. Low calcium is associated with low bone mass, higher fracture rates, and osteoporosis. This is why higher intakes of calcium and calcium supplementation is often recommended to older people.
Postmenopausal women are particularly at increased risk of lower bone mass due to fluctuating hormone levels which can cause bones to lose mass. Estrogen production decreases as menopause begins, and can subsequently increase the amount of bone modeling that occurs.
About 1 in 5 men and 1 in 3 women suffer from osteoporosis-affected broken bones. It’s important for seniors to pay attention to calcium absorption if they want to protect their bones from breaks.
How to Increase Your Calcium Absorption
Calcium is best absorbed when its intake is spread throughout the day. As long as your intake from supplements and food does not exceed 2,000 milligrams per day (for those 51 years and older), you can take your supplement whenever suits you. Keep in mind that the average adult can only absorb about 500-600 mg of calcium at once, so more doesn’t always equal better.
Experts suggest taking your tablets with a meal, maybe one lower in calcium compared to your other meals of the day. Taking your supplement with a snack will also suffice. Generally, it is helpful to take your supplement at the same time each day.
It’s also important to be mindful of medications that may interact with your calcium supplement and lower its absorption level in the body. Be sure to take calcium pills at least 2 hours before or 4-6 hours after using medications that may have adverse interactions. Medications with known interactions include:
- Levothyroxine (i.e. Synthroid, Levo-T)
- Thiazide diuretics (i.e. Diuril, Microzide)
Why Take Calcium & Vitamin D Supplements Together?
Many times, your doctor or dietitian will suggest taking a calcium supplement with vitamin D. This is because vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
Calcium and vitamin D are considered somewhat of a power couple. A recent study confirmed that beyond bone health, these nutrients enhance muscle strength and physical function in older adults.
Additionally, vitamin D is recommended to prevent falls in the elderly due to its role in helping fortify bone health. Vitamin D can help support both normal function as well as remodeling in bones. In other words, vitamin D plays a role in both the prevention of falls and the treatment of fractures, too.
How Much Vitamin D Do Seniors Need?
Vitamin D is found in small amounts in food, but can be fortified in the diet through supplement use. Look for pills that provide the RDA of 800-1,000 international units (IU) or 20-25 micrograms (mcg).
Just like calcium, it is important to keep your vitamin D dose to a moderate amount. At too high a dose, vitamin D may actually contribute to more falls and fractures. Staying within the recommended range ensures you reap the benefits without experiencing the risks.
Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is recommended to take vitamin D supplements with a meal that includes plenty of healthy fats. Most Americans consume less vitamin D than is recommended, so starting a supplement is definitely something to look into.
In Summary on Calcium Supplements for Seniors
While experts recommend getting calcium from food first, lower rates of absorption in older adults may warrant supplement use. Combining calcium supplements with vitamin D is one way to increase absorption. Both vitamin D and calcium are crucial to fortifying bone health in the later years of life.
Calcium and Vitamin D: Important at Every Age. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Published October 2018. https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/nutrition/calcium-and-vitamin-d-important-every-age.
Calcium and Vitamin D Supplement Safety Fact Sheet. Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation. https://www.bonehealthandosteoporosis.org/calcium-vitamin-d-supplement-facts/.
Dietary Supplements for Older Adults. National Institutes on Aging. Published April 2021. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/dietary-supplements-older-adults.
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