Female athlete triad: Protecting the health and bones of active young women

Elizabeth Matzkin, MD
Elizabeth Matzkin, MD, Contributor

Women who are especially active may be susceptible to a spectrum disorder known as the female athlete triad, a combination of symptoms rooted in inadequate nutrition that can ultimately lead to a greater risk of osteoporosis.

The truth about tequila and your bones

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

You may have seen the recent headlines proclaiming that tequila is good for bone health. While that sounds appealing to many, the truth is that there are many caveats to the study behind those headlines. This latest story is just one example of news articles that proclaim our favorite foods, like coffee and chocolate, are actually good for us. As with all these stories, it’s important to look deeper than the flashy headline.

Starting an osteoporosis drug? Here’s what you need to know

Maneet Kaur, MD
Maneet Kaur, MD, Contributor

In its early stages, osteoporosis has no symptoms but causes millions of bone fractures every year, often resulting in loss of function and, disability and even death from the complications of the fracture. There are effective medications to prevent osteoporosis, but they can have serious (though rare) side effects. It’s best to talk discuss with your doctor to understand all your options and make an informed decision on how to best protect your bones.

How well does calcium intake really protect your bones?

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

How much calcium do you really need for strong, healthy bones? The answer isn’t as clear as we once thought. Recent analyses suggest that neither dietary calcium nor calcium supplements reduce the risk of fractures. In the absence of a clear deficiency, it’s impossible to know how exactly much calcium a person needs. Ideally, you should get most of your calcium through food. Be sure you’re getting adequate vitamin D as well.

Vitamin D testing not recommended for most people

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Over the past decade, a barrage of reports linking low vitamin D levels to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ills led many doctors to routinely test vitamin D levels in their healthy patients. But there is no good reason to do that, according to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. The task force concluded that it isn’t helpful for most people to know their vitamin D level, and that even if you have a “low” vitamin D level there’s little evidence that taking a vitamin D supplement will do most people any good.

For women on osteoporosis drug “holiday,” bone testing at one year offers little benefit

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

For women with osteoporosis who are embarking on a “holiday” from taking a bone-building drug, the message from a study released today is “Bon voyage—see you in two years or so.” After menopause, loss of bone (osteoporosis) can lead to crippling fractures of the hip and spine. Drugs called bisphosphonates—alendronate (Fosamax) was the first on the market in the mid-1990s—slow bone loss. But after taking these drugs for a number of years, the balance can begin to tip from help to harm. A new report from the Fracture Intervention Trial Long-term Extension (FLEX) shows that measuring bone density after one year added no information that would have helped doctors identify who was at risk and perhaps should start taking a bisphosphonate again. Waiting two years is a good option for most women.

Study suggests testing bone health in older people less often may be safe

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

One key instruction in the operating manual for healthy aging is remaining ever vigilant about osteoporosis. The quest to identify osteoporosis early has led to widespread testing of bone mineral density (BMD), the key measure of bone strength. Medicare pays for the gold-standard test, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), every two years, regardless of whether their previous scan was normal or not. A study published today found that repeat bone-density testing after four years improved the ability to identify those at higher risk by only 4%. This study raises the fundamental question: Is repeating testing of older people with normal bone strength every two years too much?

High calcium intake from supplements linked to heart disease in men

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Getting extra calcium from supplements is supposed to be good for your bones. The latest in a string of studies heightens concern that this simple practice could end up being bad for your heart. The results support growing recommendations to get calcium from food, not pills. The latest evidence comes from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which has followed the health of nearly 400,000 men and women since 1995. Over 12 years of follow-up, men who took more than 1,000 milligrams (mg) of daily supplemental calcium were 20% more likely to succumb to heart disease than those who didn’t take calcium supplements. There was no connection between calcium supplements and heart disease in women (which has been seen in earlier studies), and no connection with calcium from food. This one study isn’t enough to find calcium guilty of heart disease in the first degree. But it’s not the only research to point the accusing finger. This line of research has some experts placing greater emphasis on a nutritious, calcium-rich diet and weight bearing exercise than on calcium supplements for keeping bones strong.

Cataract removal linked to fewer hip fractures

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

There are several good reasons to have cataracts fixed. Restoring clear, colorful vision certainly tops the list. A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) adds another benefit—a lower risk of breaking a hip. Researchers analyzed the effect of cataract surgery on the frequency of hip fracture in the following year. Among more than a million adults ages 65 and older who had cataracts, the frequency of hip fracture was 16% lower among those who had cataract surgery compared with those who didn’t have it, and the reduction in risk was even greater (23%) if the cataract was severe. Besides the immediate benefit of improved vision on everyday activities, and the longer-term one of preventing broken hips, cataract surgery may have other, less obvious benefits. These include more independence, better physical fitness, and better mental health.

Proposed recommendations question the value of calcium, vitamin D supplements

Stephanie Watson

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has stirred up a maelstrom of debate by proposing that healthy postmenopausal women lay off daily calcium and vitamin D supplements, which the task force says may do more harm than good. The USPSTF concluded that, based on the available evidence, supplements containing up to 400 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium don’t reduce fractures in postmenopausal women. Plus, these supplements may slightly increase the risk of kidney stones. As a result, the USPSTF says that postmenopausal women who aren’t at risk for osteoporosis shouldn’t be taking these supplements to prevent fractures. The jury is still out on whether it’s worth it for women and men to take higher doses of calcium and vitamin D to prevent fractures, or to take vitamin D to prevent cancer. Our experts say that most of your daily calcium should come from your kitchen, not your medicine chest.