This mineral is more important than you think, especially as you age. Here’s why, plus how to hit your daily quota without even trying.
Fact: Calcium is important for building strong bones.
Fact: Our bones are constantly “remodeling,” a process in which old bone is broken down and replaced by new bone. We essentially build a new skeleton every ten years.
In other words, calcium isn’t just for kids.
“Calcium is extremely important to everyone, but more so to older adults,” says June McKoy, M.D., M.P.H., a geriatric medicine specialist at Northwestern Medical Group in Chicago.
Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, helps protect your bones from becoming weak and brittle as you age. Without it, your bones will look a little like Swiss cheese, she says.
This affects your ability to stay active and maintain the strength you need to avoid falls, which can increase your risk of a fracture.
“Depending on what fracture you get, it can change your life as you know it,” says Dr. McKoy, noting that a hip fracture can quickly reduce your ability to stay independent. In fact, a review in Aging and Disease found only half of those who were totally independent in their daily activities before a hip fracture become rehabilitated up to the level for walking without aids.
And bone health isn’t the only thing calcium is good for—it impacts your overall well-being. If you aren’t getting enough, it can affect your sleep and mood, which can negatively impact your ability to exercise, maintain a healthy blood pressure, and stay social, Dr. McKoy says.
The bottom line: It’s incredibly important to make sure you’re getting enough.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
The National Institutes of Health recommends:
- Men, 51 to 70 years: 1,000 milligrams per day
- Men, 71 years and older: 1,200 milligrams per day
- Women, 51 years and older: 1,200 milligrams per day
These may seem like reasonable numbers (one cup of nonfat milk is packed with as much as 30 percent your daily recommended intake), but most older adults aren’t getting enough.
The good news is if you’re chronically low on calcium, your body will let you know—sometimes in interesting ways. Here are five warning signs to watch for, plus tips to pack more of the vital mineral into your diet.
Sign #1: Numbness or Tingling in Your Hands or Feet
You know that tingly feeling you get after falling asleep on your arm? Calcium deficiency can set off a similar sensation.
“Calcium is important for contraction and expansion of blood vessels, for sending messages along nerves, for muscle contraction, and for the manufacture of hormones,” Dr. McKoy explains. “Low calcium leads to inability of the muscles to contract and relax properly—leading to numbness.”
It’s most common in the hands, feet, arms, or legs, but some people feel numbness or tingling in their face too.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to distinguish between the sensation of a limb falling asleep and the numbness from calcium deficiency. If you experience these symptoms, talk with your doctor to discuss whether you should have your calcium levels checked.
Sign #2: Brittle Nails
Just like your bones, your fingernails need calcium to stay strong. If your nails tend to break, even when you haven’t hit them on something, or if they’re brittle at the tips, you may need to add more calcium to your diet.
Opaque white bands across multiple nails and soft nails are also signs of calcium deficiency, Dr. McKoy says.
Sign #3: Tooth Troubles
Strong bones and healthy gums are crucial to avoid tooth loss or to be a candidate for dental implants down the road. If you notice your teeth are brittle and start chipping or breaking, or you begin to experience tooth loss, it could be from low calcium.
Another telltale sign: Your pearly whites are more like milky beige. When your teeth become weak, they can start to lose out on some of their white coloring, giving them a yellow hue.
Sign #4: Sleep Problems
Calcium helps your body regulate the sleep hormone melatonin. When levels are too low, it can keep you from getting REM sleep, the state of deep, restful sleep when dreams occur.
If you often wake up feeling sluggish after a full night’s sleep, consider talking with your doctor about checking your calcium levels.
Sign #5: Muscle Cramps and Aches
Endurance athletes know that if you don’t replenish the electrolytes and salt lost through sweat, it can lead to cramping and achy muscles. The same thing can happen when you have low levels of potassium, magnesium, and calcium in your body—even if you aren’t exercising at all.
If you’re experiencing seemingly random muscle aches and cramps, especially in your arms or legs, it’s a good idea mention it to your doctor.
How to Get the Calcium You Need
Ideally, most of your daily calcium should come from food sources, rather than supplements, Dr. McKoy says. This is especially true if you’ve had a heart attack or are at a high risk for heart troubles, as recent research has linked calcium supplements to increased risk of chest pain and heart attack.
While milk, yogurt, and other dairy products are the best-known calcium sources, many older adults experience stomach discomfort if they eat too much dairy. If that’s you, opt for lactose-free milks such as Lactaid or Fairlife ultra-filtered milk.
Nondairy sources of calcium include:
- Green vegetables, such as turnip greens, kale, and broccoli
- Canned fish with soft bones, such as sardines and salmon
- Calcium-fortified cereals and juices
If you can’t meet your daily needs from food alone, your doctor may recommend you get as much as you can from your diet and take a smaller dose of up to 500 milligrams as a supplement, Dr. McKoy says.
It’s also important to note that your body needs adequate vitamin D in order to absorb the calcium you’re consuming, she says. “Vitamin D is like the car driving the calcium into the bone.”
Since your body makes vitamin D when exposed to sun, you might already be getting plenty—or not. Older adults who don’t spend as much time outside or who have skin changes that slow down the body’s production of vitamin D may need extra vitamin D.
Dr. McKoy says that adding a vitamin D supplement of 800 IU to 1000 IU to your daily regimen may be appropriate. Talk to your doctor about your diet and lifestyle, and ask if you’re getting enough vitamin D.
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