Almost half of American adults take extra vitamin D to help strengthen their bones. But a new study published online today in the Lancet concludes that for healthy older adults, taking those pills to prevent osteoporosis is simply a waste of money.
"Most healthy adults do not need vitamin D supplements," said study leader Ian Reid, M.D., from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Reid's conclusion is based on a review of all randomized trials examining the effects of vitamin D supplementation on bone density in healthy adults, up to July 2012. After analyzing 23 studies involving more than 4,000 healthy adults - mostly women - with an average age of 59, Reid and his colleagues didn't find any change in bone density in people who took D supplements for an average of two years.
"Healthy, active seniors who are not in nursing homes or assisted living probably don't need to take excess vitamin D," says Clifford Rosen, M.D., founder of the Maine Center for Osteoporosis Research and Education Laboratory, who wrote a commentary in the Lancet to go along with the study. The Institute of Medicine recommends that people over age 70 have 800 international units total of vitamin D a day, he adds. Because most elderly people get at least 400 IUs through diet and sunshine, Rosen recommends a supplement of 400 IUs for those over 70.
But what about women who have been diagnosed with osteopenia - bone density that's lower than normal yet not low enough to be considered osteoporosis. Or even, say, a tall, white, thin woman with a family history of osteoporosis - all risk factors for the disease. No, says Rosen, they'd still fall into the healthy category, at least in his (well-respected) book. If you add a previous fracture into the mix, however, that's a risk factor that might warrant taking extra D, he says. (This is one of those "talk to your doctor" questions.)
This latest research is one of a number of studies that have found it's often better to get nutrition from food (and sunshine) than from pills. A 2012 study published in the journal Heart, for example, found that men and women who took calcium pills for prevention of osteoporosis actually raised their risk of having a heart attack. Conversely, that study also found that those who got enough calcium from food had a lower risk of heart attack than did those who didn't get enough calcium.
If you are taking vitamin D on your doctor's recommendation, talk to him or her before chucking the D pills - your physician may have you taking them for a good reason. Vitamin D is crucial to good health. We need D to absorb calcium. It boosts the body's ability to fight infection and helps keep hearts healthy.
So make sure you've got some vitamin D- and calcium-packed foods in your diet. Weight-bearing exercise - walking, jogging, tennis - also helps strengthen bones. Finally, if the weather permits, go for 15 minutes of "unprotected" sunshine on your arms and legs three times a week as you garden, walk or just relax in the sun. That prescription shouldn't be hard to take.
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