Calcium supplements and heart attack: Implications for a nutrient hungry nation

A recent study out of the University of Zurich Wednesday reported the controversial findings that taking calcium supplements is linked with double the risk of heart attack.

After studying over 24,000 men and women, researchers found that those who took calcium supplements were 86 percent more likely to have a heart attack than people who did not – and the risk was more than doubled for those who were only taking calcium supplements.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of dietary supplements is a familiar trend, with over half of the population reported taking them from 2003 to 2006.  Calcium supplements in particular have increased in popularity, jumping from 28 percent of use from 1988 to 1994, to 61 percent from 2003 to 2006 in women over 60.

With no prescriptions required and touted for their nutritional benefits to the body, vitamins have been easily accepted as both harmless and helpful add-ons to daily diet routines.  However, with findings such as the ones from the University of Zurich and from other similar studies, experts caution people not to be too cavalier with taking supplements.

“Supplements should be treated like any other medication,” Dr. Phil Ragno, the director of cardiovascular health and wellness at Winthrop Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., told  “It’s important for patients to sit down with their doctors to discuss what they’re taking and does it have an effect on their body as you can see.”

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The results from Zurich are not the first of their kind, according to Ragno.  For him, it makes perfect sense for there to be cause for concern when it comes to taking extra calcium.

“Calcium is a very important ion that has many effects on the heart and vascular system,” Ragno said. “It helps the electrical conduction of the heart; it helps the contractility of the heart, and there’s always the possibility it can contribute to calcification of the blood vessels – one of the precursors to the clogging of an artery.  As our arteries build with plaque, calcium deposits in that plaque, so the calcium itself may have some effect on the clotting mechanism.”

While the possible effect that calcium supplements may have on hearth health may seem staggering, it shouldn’t be a cause for panic among those who are currently taking them.

“Certainly this is a controversial study; however, similar risk associations have been found before with the routine use of calcium supplements,” said Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing editor of Fox News Health.  “The issue at hand is how to interpret the data.  The study could not show cause and effect, and we also do not know what metabolic risk factors the population that was studied had – factors such as existing calcium deposits in the coronary arteries as well as levels of inflammatory mediators like c-reactive proteins.

“Nonetheless, I think that patients should be cautioned about the routine use of calcium pills, especially in older folks,” Alvarez added.   “To me, the important thing is that if you are eating a balanced diet, there is no need to take any supplements.”

Ragno agreed that a healthy diet negates the need for such supplements.  However, he acknowledged people with calcium deficiencies or bone disorders should continue taking their supplements, under the supervision of a clinician.  In the meantime, those who are looking for a calcium boost can turn to plenty of different foods.

“Getting calcium from dietary sources has not been linked to increased cardiovascular risk,” Ragno said.  “Dairy products are good of course.  Eating fish – sardines, salmon – is good for calcium. For the true vegan, it’s difficult.  Vegetables such as spinach can give quite a bit of calcium.”

But according to Ragno, the chances that you are calcium deficient are most likely low.

“In reality, very few Americans have vitamin deficiencies,” he said.  “It shouldn’t just be shotgun blast of supplementation – where you take a fistful of supplements at leisure.  However, if you need them, you should take them.”