The Calcium – Vitamin D Supplementation Picture Gets More Confusing

As a geriatrician who believes strongly in prevention, my perspective is that the recent high volume of research on healthy aging, chronic disease and its association with Vitamin D and Calcium supplementation has done nothing but confuse the picture for us all. I have always been an advocate of healthy eating – a balanced diet that is prepared in a manner that retains and promotes the absorption of the foods nutrients. Also, I have supported the recommendations of blue ribbon panels to supplement the diets of women of child bearing age, peri-menopausal women and post menopausal women with 1200- 1500 mg of calcium per day in addition to dietary calcium to promote healthy bones.

I have read extensively about the lower measured values of Vitamin D in men and women who are ill and have many different types of acute and chronic diseases. I have not truly accepted the idea that raising their measured serum level of Vitamin D with pill supplements did anything to improve the disease state even if we did raise the measured serum Vitamin D level. I have been amazed by experts in Europe and Asia and in the World Health Organization setting a normal lower value of measured Vitamin D level at 20 while in the USA it is 28.  I am not convinced that healthy adults with healthy kidneys cannot get adequate Vitamin D levels by 10 minutes of sun exposure a few times per week in increments which will not dramatically increase the risk of lethal skin cancers.

This was made all the more confusing by the United States Preventive Services Task Force suggesting  that Vitamin D supplements reduce the risk for older people prone to falls and this month announcing that “there is no value for postmenopausal women using supplements up to 400 IU of Vitamin D and 1000 mg of calcium daily.”  This latest ruling was based on data which showed that at 400 IU of Vitamin D and 1000 mg of Calcium daily there was no effect on the incidence of osteoporotic fractures.

Much of the data used to reach this conclusion came from the Women’s Health Initiative Studies of more than 36,000 postmenopausal women.  The USPTF noted that at this dose of Vitamin D and Calcium there was a clear increase in kidney stones which they considered a harmful effect.  At the same time as this data was being discussed, the impartial Institute of Medicine (IOM) presented suggestions and data that Vitamin D at 600 IU daily plus 1200 mg of calcium per day prevented fractures in postmenopausal women.

For my postmenopausal patients I will continue to suggest they supplement their diets with 1200 mg of calcium per day as per the IOM suggestions unless they are prone to kidney stones. They will need to stay well hydrated while I ask them to take a daily 30 minute walk exposing their arms and legs to the sun for at least 10 minutes to allow their healthy kidneys to manufacture Vitamin D.

Fish Oils Fail To Stave Off Mental Decline

Dietary supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids did not prevent cognitive decline in older individuals according to a study which reviewed the subject in the online magazine MedPage, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  By the year 2040, more than 80 million people will be affected with dementia. There has been increasing interest in identifying dietary factors that could help diminish these numbers.

The study was performed by Emma Sydenham, MSc of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in response to some previous observational studies that suggested that consuming high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids may reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline with aging. Some evidence does exist that fatty acids play an important role in brain health through the maintenance of neuronal functioning while acting as mediators of inflammation and oxidative stress.

Sydenham and associates looked back at three major studies designed primarily to assess the efficacy of Omega-3 fatty acids in preventing cardiovascular disease.  Cognitive function was assessed by various methods in all three well-designed studies.  All three studies indicated that Omega-3 fatty acids played no role in preventing cognitive decline.

Sydenham’s team suggested that more research is needed in this area. I believe this study emphasizes the wisdom of eating a balanced diet prepared in a way to retain the nutrients – inclusive of several portions of cold water fleshy fish per week.

In general, if you provide your body with the nutrients it needs by consuming appropriately prepared healthy portions, your body will extract what it needs.

Higher Death Risk with Dietary Supplements

The vitamin, mineral and herbal supplement industry in the United States has been so effective in marketing that currently 50% of adults regularly consume their products.  Traditional health care advocates have believed that a well balanced varied diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, appropriately prepared, will provide all the nutrients, Co-enzymes and anti-oxidants that you need.

A recent article in Medpage Today cited the long-term study of Jaakko Mursu, PhD, of the University of Eastern Finland which states that dietary supplements are linked to a higher death risk. The use of multivitamins and vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper supplements was associated with a greater “all cause mortality” during the 19 years the study was in progress.

Mursu evaluated the use of vitamin and mineral supplements among 38,772 post-menopausal women participating in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Initiated in 1986, the average age of the participants in the study was 61.6 years.

“Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.” stated Mursu.  “Calcium supplementation, on the other hand, was associated with a lower risk of death.”

The Food and Drug Administration does not require manufacturers of these products to reveal their efficacy or safety.  At this point I will continue to recommend a balanced, healthy and well prepared diet to my patients with avoidance of supplements unless we can demonstrate safety and efficacy.