Calcium Supplements And Heart Attacks?

Given that over 60% of women over age 60 take a calcium supplement and a huge percentage of younger men and women also take it, it’s easy to understand why a new study that linked calcium and heart health got people’s attention.

Researchers in Heidelberg, Germany followed 23,980 men and women between the ages of 35 and 64 for 11 years and found that those taking higher amounts of calcium supplements were almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who took no vitamin supplements of any kind. The study suggests that getting a balanced diet may be the best and safest way to make sure you’re getting enough calcium for your bones.

What sense can we make of this? We know that calcium is good for our bones and teeth. It’s also essential for our nerves to send messages to every other part of our body, and to help release hormones and enzymes that have an impact on almost every body function. It’s also a fact that many people in the United States get too little calcium. People at particular risk are those who are vegans (because they eat no dairy), lactose intolerant (eat less dairy), women in menopause (because low estrogen causes more calcium to be lost and they don’t absorb it as well) and women of childbearing age whose menstrual periods stop because they exercise too much or eat too little, or both.

This study had several flaws in it. For example, compared with non-users, those taking calcium supplements were more likely to be:

  • Older
  • Less well-educated
  • Smokers for a longer time

They also found participants who consumed a moderate intake of calcium from all sources (820 mg a day, including supplements) had a 31% lower risk of heart attack than the ones in the lowest quartile of calcium intake.

Some good sources of calcium from a well-balanced diet include:

  • A cup of yogurt
  • A slice of cheese
  • A glass of milk

Some non-dairy options for calcium are:

  • Tofu
  • Fortified orange juice, soymilk or almond milk
  • Collard greens or spinach
  • Salmon or sardines

How much calcium should you take?

The Institute of Medicine has set an adequate intake (AI) for calcium. Getting this amount from diet, with or without supplements, may be enough to keep your bones healthy. Doctors may recommend higher doses.

Category Calcium: Adequate Intake (AI)
0-6 months 210 mg/day
7-12 months 270 mg/day
1-3 years 700 mg/day
4-8 years 1,000 mg/day
9-18 years 1,300 mg/day
19-50 years 1,000 mg/day
51 years and up 1,200 mg/day
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding do not need extra calcium

Food labels list calcium as a percentage of the daily value (DV). This amount is based on 1,000 mg of calcium per day. For example:

  • 30% DV of calcium equals 300 mg.
  • 20% DV of calcium equals 200 mg of calcium.
  • 15% DV of calcium equals 150 mg of calcium.

Bottom line: First, there is no link between the amount of calcium in your diet and heart attacks. If you are taking a calcium supplement, keep taking it. Talk with your doctor to see if he or she feels you are at risk for any problems. Although this study raised an important question, it did not prove that taking calcium supplements is harmful. Be aware of how much calcium is in your daily diet. If you’re not getting enough, consider additional dietary intake, or discuss supplements with your doctor.