Harvard Heart Letter

Special section: Cardiovascular connections: Skeleton key

Special section: Cardiovascular connections

Skeleton key

As we get older, calcium tends to leak out of bones. At the same time, calcium begins to appear in artery walls and heart valves. This transfer is harmful all around. Loss of calcium weakens bones and makes them more likely to break, a condition known as osteoporosis. The addition of calcium to arteries and heart valves makes them stiffer, which creates more work for the heart.

Women with osteoporosis are six times more likely to have cholesterol-narrowed arteries than women without the bone-thinning disease. Men who lose more than one inch of height as they age — a common result of osteoporosis — are more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than men who don't shrink. It works in the other direction, too. Older people with peripheral artery disease (atherosclerosis in arteries in the arms, legs, and abdomen) are 50% more likely to break a bone than those with healthy arteries.

Prevention is key. Many of the things proven to keep your heart healthy are also good for your bones. Exercise is at the top of the list, followed by avoiding tobacco and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Getting some calcium every day is important, too, but don't overdo it. More than the 1,200 milligrams a day recommended for adults over age 50 isn't necessarily better.

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