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    Calcium Pills: Helping Women's Bones?

    Study Shows Many Women Aren't Following Recommendations for Calcium Supplements

    The Findings continued...

    During the five-year study, 236 participants (16%) had fractures. Overall, the fracture rate was the same for women in the active calcium arm of the study as in the placebo arm. A protective benefit was seen among women who were compliant with treatment. Among these women, the fracture rate was 10% among the calcium users and 15% among placebo users.

    But close to half of the women in the study (43%) were considered noncompliant.

    "The calcium supplementation regimen tested currently cannot be recommended as a public health approach to fracture prevention because of the lack of long-term compliance," Prince and colleagues wrote. "However, these data supported the continued use of calcium supplements by women who are able to remain compliant with their use."

    Diet and Exercise

    Jacques Rossouw, MD, who is project director for the WHI trial, says it is clear that women -- especially older women -- benefit from getting adequate calcium. But he recommends making every effort to get the calcium from food sources, rather than supplements.

    The WHI study found that taking calcium in pill form was associated with an increased risk of kidney stoneskidney stones. This association was not seen in the Australian study.

    Rossouw and Siris agree that taking vitamin D in pill form is probably a good idea because it is almost impossible to get enough of the nutrient in foods. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.

    While younger women may get what they need from 15 to 20 minutes of direct sun exposure two or three times a week, Siris says older women may not be able to produce enough vitamin D through safe sun exposure.

    Vitamin D Recommendations

    She recommends 800 to 1,000 international units of vitamin D a day but warns that most multivitamins don't contain the optimal form of the vitamin.

    "Vitamin D is cheap, but it is hard to find," she says. "We are learning more and more about the importance of this vitamin, but you still might have to search for it."

    The experts also agree that getting regular exercise is one of the most important things women can do to protect their bones. Weight-bearing exercise is especially important, but not for the reason most women think, Siris says.

    "People believe that weight-bearing exercise builds bone, but this isn't true in a 75-year-old, or in a 50-year-old for that matter," she says. "What it does do is make people stronger and improve their balance and coordination so that they fall down less often. Falls are common among elderly people, and this is how fractures occur. So anything that reduces falls can reduce fractures."

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