Calcium Supplement Controversy

Reporter: Shannon Samson

Until now, it was fundamental to good health: If you're not getting enough dairy, take calcium supplements to prevent bone loss.

So much so that Americans have been spending nearly $100 million on pills, capsules and chewables every year. Now, it looks like that investment against osteoporosis won't pay off after all.

Liz Tucker tries to take care of herself. Like many women her age, she's reminded to take steps against osteoporosis. "A lot of people talk about it and they say their doctors have told them that they should be taking calcium supplements."

But now, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine questions that advice. The Women's Health Initiative followed 36,000 women aged 50 to 79 for seven years.

Researchers found women who took calcium supplements combined with vitamin D only marginally increased bone density in their hips. But more surprisingly, they didn't have any fewer fractures than the women who took a placebo.

Geriatric specialist Dr. Elizabeth Francis says, "That's why they did this study, basically, to see if calcium alone was enough to improve bone density and reduce fractures, but that study didn't support that finding. So basically, calcium didn't make much of a difference to these people."

Dr. Francis is a physician at St. Mary's Senior Health Center. She says this study may change the way she treats her patients. Those who score poorly on a bone scan may start taking biphosphonates like Fosamax sooner, especially if they have one of the risk factors for osteoporosis. They include being white, small, inactive and having inflammatory arthritis.

But what about the supplements? Should women stop taking them altogether? Dr. Francis says, "No, I don't think we would do that because there was a small, but significant increase in hip density in these patients. So, we still need to continue with calcium."

And she says women still need to continue drinking milk and exercising like Liz Tucker. Increased muscle mass keeps bones dense. It's not that calcium supplements can't hurt. They can. In the study, women who took them had a 17 percent higher rate of having kidney stones.

Still, doctors recommend staying with the supplements. While no one wants to put themselves at risk for kidney stones, kidney stones will hurt you, but they won't kill you. A broken hip can. For many seniors, it leads to inactivity and eventually death.