Calcium Supplements and Dietary Calcium Are Not Created Equal

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Though a diet naturally high in calcium may prevent plaque buildup in the arteries, the same cannot be said for calcium supplements. According to a new study out of Johns Hopkins University, these supplements may actually increase the risk of heart disease.

A team of researchers looked at data collected from 2,742 participants aged 45 to 84 in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis who had two CT scans of the heart taken approximately 10 years apart. Patients who had the highest dietary calcium intake—including dairy products, leafy greens and calcium-enriched cereals—were on average 27% less likely than those with the lowest calcium intake to have worsening atherosclerosis over the ensuing decade.

On the other hand, calcium supplement users, who made up about half the study group, had a 22% increased risk of having their level of coronary artery calcification rise during the same period of time. The study could only show an association between calcium intake and heart disease risk, not cause and effect.

The issue of how calcium intake impacts heart disease remains a moving target. In the 1990s, calcium supplements and antacids such as Tums® were promoted for bone health. Then evidence of potential cardiovascular harm began to appear. However, some studies have since shown no association between supplement use and heart disease.

For now, “patients should really discuss any plan to take calcium supplements with their doctor to sort out a proper dosage or whether they even need them,” said Erin Michos, MD, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a press release that accompanied the new study.

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