- Calcium plays an important role in bone health; deficiency can lead to reduced bone density and cause conditions such as osteoporosis.
- Calcium supplementation later in life only slightly reduces the risk of osteoporosis or fracture.
- Previous research on the effect of additional calcium on bone mineral growth in young people (35 years or younger) has been limited.
- Recently, researchers completed a systematic review to summarize the evidence for the effect of calcium supplementation in younger age groups and found that supplementation actually improves bone mass.
Osteoporosis, in which bones become porous and weaker due to loss of bone density, is a major health problem during aging.
The condition increases the risk of fractures, particularly in the hips, spine and wrists. Osteoporosis particularly affects older women and typically occurs as a result of hormonal changes or a lack of calcium or vitamin D.
In a new study published recently in eLife, researchers from Wenzhou Medical University, China, were looking for randomized controlled trials that compared calcium or calcium plus vitamin D with a placebo or without treatment in participants under 35 years of age. In particular, the researchers examined bone mineral density or bone mineral content.
Her analysis included more than 7,300 participants in 43 studies and examined changes in bone mineral density and bone mineral levels in the lumbar region, femoral neck, entire hip, and entire body.
Measuring bone health
Bone mineral density tests can provide a snapshot of a person’s bone health.
Changes in bone mass occur naturally over time, with the highest bone mass occurring in our 20s — although there is a difference between men and women.
In the new study, the researchers found that calcium supplements in people under 35 years of age can significantly improve the bone mineral density of both the entire body and the femoral neck and can slightly increase the bone mineral density of the femoral neck, the entire body and the lumbar spine.
This improvement was most pronounced in people aged 20 to 35 years (the peri-peak bone mass age at which bone mass reaches plateaus) compared to people under 20 years of age (the age before peak bone mass).
Professor Joan Marie Lappe, Ph.D., RN, Extraordinary Dean at the College of Nursing Research at the Osteoporosis Research Center at Creighton University in Omaha, NE, who was not involved in the study, explained the results to Medical News Today:
“Younger people need adequate calcium intake to build and maintain strong bones. The analysis included both dietary calcium supplement and calcium studies. Dietary calcium is the best source, but supplements should be taken as needed to reach the recommended intake levels.”
Build stronger bones with extra calcium
The researchers found that both sources of calcium and calcium supplements had positive effects on overall bone mineral density but bone mineral density. Measurements of the femoral neck and lumbar spine were only improved after calcium supplementation.
Prof. Lappe noted: “Previous research and human calcium physiology show us that without adequate calcium intake, the body extracts calcium from bones to be used for other vital functions.”
Research also shows that maximum bone mass (achieved between 25 and 30 years of age) is the best predictor of osteoporotic fractures in older adults. Reaching maximum peak mass therefore offers protection against osteoporosis.
— Professor Joan Marie Lappe, PhD, RN
Lily Chapman, BSc., MSc., performance trainer and sports and exercise nutrition consultant who is not involved in the research, emphasized to MNT that “studies have consistently shown that either dietary calcium intake is increased or calcium is included. Supplementation can help reduce maximum to increase bone mass/content density and reduce bone loss.”
However, Chapman pointed out that most studies so far have tended to include older participants.
“Old age leads to an accelerated loss of bone density, accompanied by microstructural changes. Given the current burden on healthcare systems and the growing importance of a proactive and preventative approach for [the] health and fitness industry, this research plays an important role in being the first meta-analysis known to me that focuses on age before maximum bone mass is reached.”
— Lily Chapman BSc., MSc.
When reviewing the results of the study, Chapman said:
“Significant improvement effects of calcium supplements were found on both bone mineral density and bone mineral content, particularly on the femoral neck. This is a promising find, as people who develop higher peak bone mass at a younger age are likely to be better protected from problems such as osteoporosis and associated fractures later in life.”
Limitations of research The
Researchers found several limitations in their publication.
For example, the researchers did not clearly compare the difference between men and women due to the limitations of existing data (some studies provided consolidated data on men and women without men alone). They also found that only a few of the studies they had included in the analysis focused on the 20-35 age group.
Chapman noted this in her review. “Only three studies met the inclusion criteria for the 20-35 age group, meaning that a high percentage of participants were adolescents,” Chapman said.
“Therefore, it is necessary for further studies to examine the 20-35 age group to consolidate these results, as this is a period of life when bone mineral density peaks. But overall, this is a promising area of research that has several strengths, mainly because it is one of the first meta-analyses of its kind!
The researchers point out that although the number of studies in the 20-35 age group was low, their evidence was of high quality and the results were stable, particularly in the femoral neck.
Based on this research, people over 35 may be wondering whether it is too late to start taking calcium supplements. Prof. Lappe answered this important question: “It is never too late.”