Research has found that calcium and vitamin D supplements may not reduce the risk of bone fractures, but experts say they still provide other health benefits such as preventing falls.
The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that calcium or vitamin D supplements – or a combination of both – did not significantly reduce the risk of bone fracture in adults aged above 50.
The findings appear to contradict general guidance by national health bodies, such as Osteoporosis Australia, that encourage intake of varying quantities of such supplements as required.
However, orthogeriatrics expert Jacqueline Close said that while the research considered the role of vitamin D in fracture prevention, it disregarded its role in preventing falls.
Professor Close, the clinical director of the Falls, Balance and Injury Research Centre at Neuroscience Research Australia, said preventing falls in itself was an important benefit for the elderly.
“We know that older people who are vitamin D deficient, and particularly those living in residential aged care facilities, are likely to benefit from vitamin D in that it is an effective strategy to prevent falls,” she said.
“A fall in itself is an important outcome for an older person, regardless of whether it results in a fracture.
“The effect of vitamin D on muscle and nervous tissue is important in falls prevention and is separate to any beneficial effects it may have on bone.”
Ms Close added that the research did not control for the likelihood that those living in residential care are largely housebound and receive less sun exposure.
“Whilst widespread calcium and vitamin supplementation appears unlikely to be of benefit, there are high-risk populations who still stand to benefit from dietary supplementation with vitamin D,” she said.
Researchers analysed the data collected from 51,145 participants across 33 clinical trials.
The participants, aged over 50, were not living in a nursing home, not taking any anti-osteoporosis medications and had no history of steroid-induced bone breakdown – many factors of which would be categorised ‘high risk’.
Further analyses found the research results to be “generally consistent” regardless of the supplement dose, gender, fracture history and dietary calcium intake.
Nicholas Pocock, a bone densitometry specialist at St Vincent’s Hospital and osteoporosis researcher with more than 30 years’ experience, said he was also sceptical that the research did not control for baseline vitamin D.
“If you are lower in vitamin D, you are more likely to benefit from a supplement” he said.
“Even if you have osteoporosis, supplements alone would not be enough. They should be taken along with other prescription therapies.
“For supplements, we’re looking at a modest effect for the general population. The benefit of prescription medication is much more profound.
“Personally, I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on this study. I think it would be difficult to generalise these findings.”