If you belong to the millennial or Gen Z crowd, you may remember all too well the “Got Milk?” campaign which often featured popular athletes, actors and musicians donning milk mustaches. The campaign, which ran from 1993 to 2014, did a phenomenal job of warning multiple generations about the dangers of not consuming enough calcium.
While you’re no longer a growing kid, and also know that getting enough calcium is a bit more nuanced than chugging a glass of milk, it turns out age can be a huge contributing factor when it comes to calcium needs.
Calcium and the Role It Plays
Calcium is essential for maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as for proper muscle and nerve function — something you may remember from the milk ads. However, the amount of calcium you need varies depending on your age, says Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian nutritionist on the staff at Texas Health Arlington.
“The amount of calcium you need depends on your age,” she says. “When we are young and our bones and teeth are growing, our calcium needs are at their very highest. Half of all bone is formed during the teen years.”
Because of this, kids and adolescents need a bit more calcium than other age groups. You should aim for a daily intake of 1,000-1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium in this age group.
“Then, as we get older and age, we slowly start to lose bone,” she explains. “For some people, that can be as early as age 40. Older adults over age 50 have a higher level of calcium intake recommended, with women needing it sooner than men. The goal in older people is to avoid the risk of osteoporosis that can lead to broken bones, which can be difficult to heal and affect an older person’s quality of life.”
Generally, anyone under the age of 50 should aim for a recommended daily intake of around 1,000 mg. However, women over age 50 and men over age 70 are advised to increase their intake to 1,200 mg per day due to their higher risk for osteoporosis.
As you get older, your risk of age-related bone loss, or osteoporosis, increases. Osteoporosis has been dubbed the "silent disease of the 21st century" due to its severity, chronicity, and progression in many postmenopausal women and older adults. Osteoporosis literally translates to “porous bone,” and it’s a disease in which bone density and quality are reduced. As bones become more porous, they also become much more fragile, greatly increasing the risk of fracture.
What’s Your Risk?
There are multiple reasons why women are more likely to get osteoporosis than men. For starters, women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than their male counterparts. The hormone estrogen also plays a major role, as it helps protect bones. When women reach menopause, their estrogen levels drastically drop, which can cause bone loss.
Although women are at greater risk, men get osteoporosis too. In fact, up to one in four men over age 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis.
Many of the risk factors that put women at risk for osteoporosis apply to men as well. For example, family history, taking steroid medicines, not exercising, smoking, drinking too much alcohol or having low testosterone levels can put you at risk for getting osteoporosis. Evidence also suggests that low estrogen levels in men can lead to bone loss, as does having other medical problems such as chronic kidney, lung or gastrointestinal disease, prostate cancer and certain autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
According to Taylor, there are two major factors that affect your chance of getting osteoporosis: the amount of bone you have when you reach menopause, for women, or reach the age of 70, for men, and how fast you lose bone after each.
The greater your bone density is to begin with, the lower your chance of developing osteoporosis. If you had low peak bone mass or other risk factors that caused you to lose bone, your chance of getting osteoporosis is greater. Additionally, if you lose bone quickly, you have a greater chance of developing osteoporosis.
One way to identify your bone health is by doing a bone density test, sometimes called a bone mineral density (BMD) test or bone mass measurement.
The test can identify osteoporosis, determine your risk for fractures and measure your response to osteoporosis treatment. The most commonly used BMD test is called a central DXA test, a painless test that is a bit like having an X-ray performed.
One or two years after an initial bone density test, a second bone density may be done and will determine if you have low peak bone mass that is staying the same or if you are losing bone. If your bone density drops significantly between the first and second test, you may be losing bone and further evaluation by a healthcare provider is needed. Your physician will go over your test results with you but if you’d like to learn more about the scores associated with the test, the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center has a comprehensive guide online.
How to Increase Your Calcium Intake
If you don’t consume dairy, you may be wondering how you can get an adequate amount of calcium in your diet. While Taylor notes that dairy products are some of the best sources for calcium, there are many foods that are calcium-rich, so you don’t have to purely rely on dairy.
Some sources of calcium-rich foods include:
Fruits & Veggies:
- Cooked collard greens: 134 mg per 1/2 cup
- Cooked napa cabbage: 79 mg per 1/2 cup
- Dried figs: 61 mg per 1/4 cup
- Oranges: 60 mg per 1 medium
- Cooked kale: 47 mg per 1/2 cup
- Cooked broccoli: 31 mg per 1/2 cup
- Raw tofu prepared with calcium sulfate: 434 mg per 1/2 cup
- Canned sardines: 351 mg per 3.75 oz can
- Cooked soybeans: 261 mg per 1 cup
- Cooked white beans: 81 mg per 1/2 cup
- Shrimp: 77 mg per 3 oz
- Cooked pinto beans: 39 mg per 1/2 cup
- Cooked red beans: 25 mg per 1/2 cup
Additional Food Sources:
- Fortified cereal: upwards of 1000 mg per 3/4-1 cup serving
- Fortified orange juice: 350-500 mg per 1 cup
- Sesame seeds: 351 mg per 1/4 cup
- Fortified plant milks: 100-300 mg per 8 oz serving
- Fortified instant oatmeal: 140 mg per 1 packet
If your doctor recommends a calcium supplement, they may recommend you split the dose to increase your ability to fully absorb the supplement. This can look like taking two 500-mg supplements at different times of the day instead of one 1,000-mg supplement.
Potassium can also help support healthy bones, and is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
Potassium is found in many food sources, such as:
- vegetables and fruits such as bananas, durian, raisins, Medjool dates, guava, peaches, oranges, potatoes, cabbage, and leafy greens
- whole grains
- dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- meat and poultry
The recommended daily allowance for potassium is 2,600 mg for women and 3,400 mg for men Most people can get enough potassium through food, but if you find yourself having a hard time getting enough, you should supplement only under the supervision of a doctor, since getting too much potassium can be life-threatening.
Rounding out our bone-healthy vitamins and minerals is vitamin D. Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body can produce it from sun exposure. While the best way to get vitamin D is from the sun, too much sun exposure can be dangerous.
You can get vitamin D from foods such as dairy products, mushrooms, egg yolks, and fatty fish. However, because you would have to eat these foods nearly every single day to get enough vitamin D, it’s recommended to take a supplement of 600 IU or greater after age 50.
“We know that we need a variety of foods with nutrients to have a healthy body and calcium is a very good example,” Taylor explains. “Calcium cannot build bones and teeth alone. Calcium needs other nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin K, potassium, and magnesium to increase bone density and strength.”
You are never too young or old to take care of your bones; in fact, starting early and establishing good lifestyle habits can help you protect your bones and decrease your chance of getting osteoporosis as you age. If your health care provider hasn’t talked to you about your bone health, it’s time for you to bring it up!
“Read your food and beverage labels, look for food and drinks that have calcium naturally or those that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” Taylor adds. “Take a typical day and journal your intake, then add up your milligrams of calcium. How did you do? Can you work on improving your calcium intake? Having healthy bones as you get older, can make a difference in aging strong!”
Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/Doctors today.