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Boning Up on Calcium: Supplements for Bone Health

Popping calcium for better bone health? Get the most from that supplement with these tips.
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You've probably heard that calcium is important for bone health and treating -- or preventing -- osteoporosis. Happily, calcium seems to be everywhere these days. Not only is it naturally in dairy and other foods, but it now appears in many fortified products -- like oatmeal, cereal, protein bars, and orange juice. Calcium is also sold in countless supplements for bone health that line the aisles of your local drugstore.

And yet, it's not enough. "Most people still aren't getting enough calcium in their diets," says Shreyasee Amin, MD, a rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Why? Part of the problem isn't just that we're not eating or taking enough calcium. For calcium to be absorbed and used, we need to have the right levels of other things, such as vitamin D. If we don't, the calcium we take in just doesn't do us much good. So some of us could be drinking milk by the bucket and yet still not get the calcium we need.

So here's what you need to know about calcium supplements for bone health.

Why Is Calcium Important for Bone Health?

Calcium is key in the building of new bone. And bone development occurs every day of your life. Just as you shed skin cells and grow new ones to replace them, your body naturally removes old bone and replaces it with new. 

The pace of losing and growing bone differs depending on your age. When you were young, you made much more bone than you lost, which is why your bones got bigger and stronger. But the problems start when this balance tips too far in the other direction, and you start losing bone much faster than you can grow it.

Gradual bone loss begins in adulthood and becomes more serious after age 50. In women, the hormonal changes of menopause -- and the drop in estrogen levels that occur with it -- can greatly worsen the imbalance. The bones naturally lose mass, becoming more brittle.

Because calcium isn't produced by your body, the amount you have depends on the foods you eat. Here's a chart showing how much calcium -- measured in milligrams (mg) -- that you need based on your age.

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Osteoporosis Glossary

  • Bone Mineral Density - A measurement of the amount of calcium and minerals in bone tissue.
  • Calcium - A mineral in (and vital to) your bones. If your body lacks calcium, it takes it from bones.
  • DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) - a test used to measure bone mineral density.
  • Osteoporosis - A decrease in bone density, which increase the risk of fractures.
  • Vitamin D - A vitamin that helps your body absorb calcium.
  • View All Terms

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