For how many years have women been told they need to take some sort of calcium supplement even before they advance in years to avoid osteoporosis? Okay, it’s a big number, but that’s not the point if you have an older loved one in your life. It’s more than calcium that is needed in a person’s diet to get the benefit of bone density that the calcium is credited with preserving.
Calcium intake throughout a person’s life is needed to grow or maintain bone mass. It was the early sailors that understood that a person also needed fruits containing citric acid in order for the body to actually put the calcium to use maintaining serum calcium levels. They didn’t worry about osteoporosis’ they worried about scurvy. So this is another part of the more complicated calcium story and what the body really needs. First of all, food is the preferred way to access calcium, because foods containing calcium also contain other nutrients. Getting your calcium through food also avoids the mega doses of the mineral that can be associated with cardiac risks.
In addition to calcium, vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D has the added benefit of improving muscle performance and balance. It keeps your bones strong and your muscles nimble. And vitamin D is activated by sunshine, so it is not just eating food with sufficient vitamin D and calcium, it is getting out in the sunshine…although there are nutrients that can help the body utilize the vitamin D in the absence of sunshine.
Researchers also have shown some benefit of phytoestrogens, some of which are found in soy products, with women. Omega-3 fatty acids that you have heard about in conjunction with Alzheimer’s prevention also confer benefit to the skeleton especially in conjunction with calcium because they contain phytoestrogens. Antioxidants like flavonoids found in some vegetables, wines and fruits offer beneficial bone effects as well. Vitamin B12 and magnesium also are being actively investigated for their bone health benefit. On the flip side, researchers advise against fish products like cod liver oil as they can work against bone health.
What is the big takeaway? First, calcium is important, but it works best in conjunction with some of these other vitamins and minerals. And all of this works better in association with diet in general, not as pills or supplements. The best dietary supplements are a range of fruits and vegetables, many of them found in your salads or even dinner wine. And what is the best thing about a balanced meal? The good company that can come with dinner can also improve life for your older loved one who may be more at risk for social isolation than malnutrition. It is rarely just one thing! So invite mom or dad to dinner.
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.