What does this new Calcium Study Mean for Seniors?

Calcium supplements are used by many seniors, especially women, to help keep the risk of developing osteoporosis at a minimum. However a new study may indicate that such supplements could raise an older woman’s risk of dementia.

This new study does not prove cause-and-effect, yet the findings of the study seemed to have shown that dementia risk was seven times higher in female stroke survivors who took calcium supplements, compared to women with a history of stroke who didn’t use the supplements.

According to lead researcher Dr. Silke Kern, a neuropsychiatric researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, women with cerebrovascular disease and osteoporosis should discuss this new information with their clinicians…”.

Oddly enough though, Dr. Kern stressed that the findings apply only to calcium supplements, and that calcium from food appears to affect the brain differently and appears to be safe or even protective.

Is this another example of a new study that seems to be ground breaking, yet confusing and contradictory?

Consider the way the study was conducted.

"The risk of dementia also was three times higher in women with white matter brain lesions who took calcium supplements, compared to women with white matter lesions who didn’t take the supplements. Lesions in white matter tissue are evidence of a mini-stroke or some other problem impeding blood flow within the brain."

The study included information from 700 dementia-free women. The participants were between the ages of 70 and 92 at the start of the study. The study began in 2000, and researchers followed the women’s health for five years.

The study participants took a variety of tests at the beginning and end of the study, including tests of memory and thinking skills. Researchers also conducted CT brain scans on 447 participants at the start of the study, which revealed that 71 percent of these women had white matter lesions.

A total of 98 women were taking calcium supplements at the start of the study, and 54 women had already experienced a stroke. During the study, 54 more women had strokes and another 59 women developed dementia.

Initially, the research team found that the women taking calcium supplements were twice as likely to develop dementia as women who did not take supplements.

It seems that Dr. Kern isn’t sure why calcium supplements might have this effect. Calcium plays a crucial role in cell death, she said, and high levels of calcium in the blood might prompt the early death of neurons. Excess calcium also might somehow affect the blood vessels within the brain.

More Study may be Needed Before Conclusions Can Be Made

“I would hope this type of study will be reproduced in larger populations and more ethnically diverse populations.” - Dr. Neelum Aggarwal

According to Dr. Neelum Aggarwal, an Associate professor of neurological science and director of research for the Rush Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, other factors may be a work as well. She said that calcium also can affect brain chemistry, and too much calcium might cause a cascade of events that lead to brain cell degeneration.

food sources of calcium

And Dr. Aggarwal cautioned against blaming calcium supplements alone for any person’s dementia risk.

“We need to consider that the combination of nutrients will be more predictive than one nutrient,” she said. “For example, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium all are typically looked at for their effects on multiple organs, and cognitive [mental] functioning will be affected most likely by a combination of these nutrients. To say that only one nutrient increases the risk of dementia is premature, and more studies need to look at a combination of nutrients.”

What May Some Conclude From This New Study Regarding Calcium Supplements?

Osteoporosis is a major problem for seniors, and it’s worth looking further into the tradeoffs that come with calcium supplements

“This new calcium study provides limited evidence to support its hypothesis, and therefore we caution against jumping to conclusions. Even the authors acknowledge these findings ‘need to be confirmed,’” - Duffy MacKay, spokesperson for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement trade association.

According to MacKay, the authors of the study ‘mined data from a decade-old observational study, which was not originally designed to assess calcium intake’. And the study ‘included only 98 women who took calcium supplements and did not include any information on their supplemental calcium dose or duration, or dietary intake of calcium,’

Clearly, while studies about the effects of dietary supplements are interesting, all such are not conclusive. Each of us must make decisions of our own when it comes to diet, dietary supplements and changes in our food intake.

Note: The findings were published online Aug. 17 in the journal Neurology -
Calcium supplementation and risk of dementia in women with cerebrovascular disease

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