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Health Leaders Discuss Importance of Calcium and Vitamin D, Affirm Value of Research

Public HealthMay 16, 06

The Society for Women’s Health Research convened experts on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss recent results from a federal study to gauge the ability of calcium and vitamin D supplements to help prevent broken bones in women over 50. Initial news coverage said the study found no clear benefits, contradicting long held beliefs and confusing both patients and doctors. Health experts say the study results show benefits for some groups and guidelines for the nutrients remain unchanged.

“The Women’s Health Initiative’s calcium and vitamin D supplemental trial showed that women over the age of 60 had a 21 percent reduction in risk for hip fracture,” said Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society. “Women who took a full dose of calcium, as directed by the study, had a 29 percent decrease in risk.”

Despite these findings, many headlines about this federally-funded research trial were negative and misleading.

“It is important to remember that this was a tremendously complex research study,” Greenberger said. “Unfortunately, science does not work in sound bites. Headlines that grab attention rarely tell a story completely or accurately.”

The study’s conclusions suggested no changes to the recommended daily intake of calcium and vitamin D, which is 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 800 international units of vitamin D. Connie M. Weaver, Ph.D., head of the Foods and Nutrition Department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and one of the briefing’s panelists, said the 2005 U.S. dietary guidelines recommend three cups of milk products every day. Individuals who do not get enough calcium and vitamin D through food should talk to their doctors about taking supplements to address the deficit.

Citing data from the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Weaver showed that women on average consume less calcium than men in every age category. That statistic should be alarming for women, who are at increased risk for bone fractures especially after menopause. Women comprise 80 percent of the population that suffers from osteoporosis.

“There is a need for increased public education on calcium and vitamin D as they relate to bone health,” Greenberger said. “A survey the Society conducted last year found that less than half of women over 50, the population most at risk for bone disease, think vitamin D is important for maintaining their bones. Americans seem to know about the value of calcium, but they underestimate the importance of other nutrients for bone health, such as vitamin D. Without vitamin D, calcium is not absorbed by the bone.”

In addition to discussing the role of calcium and vitamin D in bone health, the Society reminded federal policy makers at the briefing of the importance of research.

“As policy makers,” Greenberger told the audience, “it is important for you to understand that the funding for this and other arms of the WHI was a wise investment. We have gained a tremendous amount of information, much of which is still being analyzed. We need to build upon the WHI with research that further pinpoints the keys to preventing, diagnosing and treating conditions such as heart disease, fractures, and breast and colorectal cancer, which increase substantially in women as they reach their menopausal and postmenopausal years.”

Joining Weaver on the briefing panel was Marcia L. Stefanick, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Women’s Health Initiative Steering and Executive Committees, and communications expert Cindy DiBiasi. Stefanick explained the results of the Women’s Health Initiative trial. DiBiasi discussed media coverage of medical research findings and the challenges faced by both media and consumers in interpreting research findings.

To avoid being confused or mislead by media reports on medical research, Greenberger offered a few suggestions.

“Always read past the headlines, which are often sensationalized,” Greenberger said. “If you read the full story, you will usually find details that clarify and put the findings in context. Always ask yourself how the findings impact you as an individual, taking into account your age, gender, ethnicity, family history and general health status. If you are troubled or confused by what you read, seek additional information from reliable sources on the Internet or ask your doctor.”

The briefing, which took place during National Women’s Health Week, was made possible by an unrestricted educational grant from Pharmavite.

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