Once again scary headlines magnify a smaller, more specific and much more limited risk
Calcium supplements are commonly prescribed or recommended by GP’s and consultants as a way to manage or delay the onset of osteoporosis.
The condition affects more than three million patients in the UK and each year more than 500,000 people receive hospital treatment for fractures resulting from the weakened bones that it causes.
The loss of bone integrity is a normal part of the ageing process which only becomes diagnosed as osteoporosis when the condition becomes severe enough to cause the risk of structural failure.
In women the process accelerates in the years after menopause and leaves them with a much higher risk of developing the condition than men.
Little wonder that, even before the onset of any severe symptoms, many women take vitamin D and calcium supplements to help strengthen bone structure.
These nutrients are notoriously difficult to obtain through diet, particularly at the levels necessary to combat the ageing process.
So when a Swedish research team recently published findings that indicated an increased risk of dementia attached to taking calcium as a supplement, it caused quite a stir.
Anyone casually reading the headlines generated by the story could be forgiven for thinking that calcium was now something to be avoided as a supplement.
But they would be wrong.
The Gothenburg based scientists who wrote the paper certainly did not intend to cast a shadow over the use of supplements.
Their paper was detailed and specific in its report of the findings resulting from a five year study of 700 women aged between 70 and 92.
98 of the women were taking calcium supplements at the start of the study and 54 of the entire group had already suffered a stroke.
During the course of the five year programme 54 more women had strokes and 59 developed dementia.
Their statistical analysis showed that women who were suffering from cerebrovascular disease (problems involving the blood supply to the brain, often resulting in strokes and mental impairment known as vascular dementia) and took calcium supplements were twice as likely to develop dementia.
Even more strikingly, women who had already had a stroke and took calcium supplements were seven times more likely to develop dementia.
Equally importantly, women who had no history of strokes or indications of cerebrovascular disease showed no increased risk.
In this group there was no difference in the risk of dementia between those who took calcium supplements and those who didn’t.
The researchers were unable to suggest any causal link between the supplemental calcium and the onset of dementia.
At this stage the link is purely statistical and requires further research using much larger sample groups.
Clearly these findings are very important when it comes to considering the suitability of patient treatments and would suggest that at the first indication of cerebrovascular issues the use of calcium supplements should be very carefully considered.
For the vast majority of patients, however, the results present no cause for concern whatsoever.
No matter what the headlines say.
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