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Doubts About Calcium

By January W. Payne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Calcium and vitamin D supplements -- long recommended for post-menopausal women as a way to protect their bones -- were found not to reduce the risk of hip fractures in a large, closely watched study published this month. This has left some women confused about the value of taking the pills.

The Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a 15-year federally funded study involving more than 36,000 women ages 50 to 79, found that taking calcium (1,000 milligrams daily) and vitamin D (400 international units daily) improved hip bone density, but didn't decrease the risk of hip fractures. (See Quick Study, Page F6.) While the findings may influence the direction of future studies, researchers admit they offer limited practical guidance for physicians and patients.

How should women respond meanwhile? We put that question -- and others -- to experts last week.

Am I the only one confused by the new findings?

Hardly. The study has "generated a lot of questions from patients," said Ethel Sirus, director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. But she and other experts said they don't expect the findings to change doctors' advice that patients get calcium and vitamin D through diet, sun exposure and, if necessary, through supplements.

Wait a minute. Didn't the study find there's no value in taking calcium supplements?

That's an overstatement. As far as bone health -- the primary focus of the study -- goes, there are still too many unknowns to reach a solid conclusion. A subgroup of older women -- age 60 and over -- who took the supplements did show some reduction of hip fracture risk, but benefits in the overall group were not statistically significant. On colorectal cancer -- a secondary focus -- the supplements also appeared to offer no benefit. The study didn't look at other possible benefits of calcium supplementation including cardiovascular health.

Weren't there some caveats?

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