Does calcium really cause heart attacks, as studies suggest? Here's the untold story about the world's No. 1 mineral supplement.
By now you’ve probably heard about the latest piece of scientific evidence, published yesterday, saying that the No. 1 selling dietary supplement mineral, calcium, causes heart attacks. Is it true?
If you’ve been paying attention, you will recall that in the summer of 2010, a research group first published a study—a “meta-analysis” of researcher-selected studies (grain of salt alert!)—that sought to demonstrate their hypothesis that calcium supplements were linked with an increased risk of heart attacks.
This week, that same group of researchers from the same research center in Germany tried to replicate their findings from their cherry-picked meta-analysis. They reported that, after following 23,980 patients between the ages of 35 and 64 for 11 years as part of a European study into nutrition and cancer, there was an increased incidence of heart attack risk among those who took calcium supplements.
Two thoughts here. One, the primary end points of the study were on cancer, not cardiovascular events. Which counts for something. More notably, however, was their findings that greater dairy calcium intake—that’s dairy, as in milk or cheese or ice cream and not supplements—actually had a significantly lower risk of heart attacks.
A third finding also deserves mention: They found no link between either calcium supplements or food-based calcium intake and strokes or overall cardiovascular disease death (just not heart attacks).
I always say that one study does not a conclusion make, and even then I always hesitate to use the word “prove,” preferring the more modest “demonstrate.” Because what can truly be proved in this world anyway? Studies merely show that something at some time under some conditions were demonstrated. Has a different party replicated those results?
Turns out that just last week, these results were replicated. In a Swiss study, published last week and unheralded in the media, researchers followed 326 patients who were assessed for cardiac risk factors before undergoing surgery for something not related to a cardio condition. They found that calcium was implicated as being a strong predictor of bad news on the horizon. When researchers checked back in on patients 40 days after their surgery, the patients with the highest amount of calcium in their coronary arteries had the highest incidence of cardio events, defined as heart attacks, stroke and death. Similarly, those with the lowest amount of calcium deposits in their arteries had the lowest incidence of cardio events.
So, what does this mean for America’s favorite mineral?
Three things, in inceasing levels of importance. (Can you feel the drama building?)
One, if calcium is implicated only in sudden-death heart attacks but not other types of cardiovascular insult like strokes, this makes me think of the greatest natural bioactive to counter this. Fish oil. Remember, heart attacks that kill you before you get a chance to get out of your chair are usually caused because a chunk of arterial plaque (comprised mostly of calcium, ahem) broke off and suddenly clogged your artery in full, and you drop like a fly. What fish oil does is decrease blood platelet stickiness—it makes your blood more slippery—so that the blood is more apt to slide around those plaque deposits without breaking them off.
Two, those researchers this week found calcium alone led to heart attack problems, but not calcium in a food.
Notably, researchers from the same research center found no correlation between blood levels of calcium and phosphate on coronary heart disease, but there was an association between calcium-only levels on death risk among 1,206 patients followed for eight years post-op.
Presence of trace minerals copper, selenium and zinc can positively enhance bone density. Other studies show no association between these minerals. However, research does show one mighty mineral does help: magnesium.
You likely know magnesium because of its traditional use with calcium in bone-health formulations at the 1:2 ratio of magnesium to calcium. That’s because calcium cannot get absorbed without its mineral mate magnesium. But we’re already consuming way too much calcium.
“Americans consume over 10 times the recommended allowance of calcium—highest consumption rate worldwide—and have the highest rate of osteoporosis,” said Rick Hand at supplements manufacturer Natural Vitality.
That’s why forward-operating supplements manufacturers are heeding the call and are beginning to dispense with formulations of the classic 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium, going more for a 1:1 ratio.
Combating overconsumption of calcium
And three, when you take the studies and news from above, what you’ll see is that calcium alone kills, but calcium from dietary sources—meaning calcium linked with other nutrients—saves. That’s why truly cutting-edge supplements manufacturers and marketers are also including additional co-factors with calcium, including vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin K2.
That makes quite a bit of sense, because bones—despite being white like calcium—are comprised of a range of minerals. Just like dietary sources of calcium.
Vitamin D has been the clear winner the last few years, because it has benefits far beyond mere bone health. I’m seeing magnesium as following behind D’s footsteps, and it too has benefits far beyond bone health, including—that’s right—cardiovascular health, as well as cognitive health including sleep, memory and anxiety.
Everyone should also be formulating with vitamin K2, which has the unique ability to remove calcium from arteries (point for cardio health) and deposits it in bones (bonus for bones). K2, in particular the longer-chain menaquinone-7 form, had a study presented this very week showing it improves bone strength and prevents cardiovascular aging.
Taken as a whole, the clear recommendation is that calcium all by itself may well be bad for you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t supplement. Just supplement with a quality-made product that includes calcium with a matrix of co-factors to both build bone and enhance cardiovascular health.
Calcium supplements may well be bad for you. But quality calcium-based supplements save lives.