You know calcium is key to strong bones, so you’ve been deliberate in regularly popping calcium pills to ward off osteoporosis. But now you’ve heard that too much calcium can increase the risk of heart attack. It feels like you just can’t win in the quest for good health.
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What’s the real story? We talked to cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD, about the link between calcium and heart disease.
Coronary artery disease and calcium
Coronary artery disease strikes when something blocks the arteries that deliver blood to the heart. Most of the time, that something is atherosclerosis — fatty deposits called plaques that glom onto the walls of the arteries. Plaques in the coronary arteries can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
But plaques aren’t just lumps of fat and cholesterol. Doctors now know that calcium can also collect in those deposits.
“Calcium builds up in the arteries as you age,” explains Dr. Cho.
Calcium score screening
Doctors now measure that calcium as a marker of coronary artery health using a calcium-score screening (a type of CT scan that spots calcium in the arteries).
“The calcium lays on the plaques in the arteries, so when we see it on the scan, it serves as a marker for the presence of plaques,” Dr. Cho says.
In older people, it’s common to have a lot of calcium in the arteries, she adds. But in middle-aged adults, it can signal greater plaque buildup — and the need for closer monitoring or more aggressive treatment for atherosclerosis.
Are calcium supplements dangerous?
What does this all mean for dairy lovers? The research has been…confusing, to say the least.
Some studies have found a link between high levels of calcium intake and heart attack. But others have come to different conclusions.
“The data we have just isn’t very good yet,” says Dr. Cho.
One study found people who had high calcium intake had less — not more — calcification in their coronary arteries. But that was mostly true for people who got calcium from their meals, rather than pills. There were hints that supplements might increase calcium deposits in the arteries.
Though the findings are still fuzzy, one thing seems clear, Dr. Cho adds, “It’s better to get your calcium from food or drink than to take it by pill. Your body is designed to absorb vitamins and minerals from your diet.”
Preventing osteoporosis: Calcium is important
Still, Dr. Cho says it would be a mistake to avoid calcium.
“There is a real risk of osteoporosis as you get older, especially for women,” she says. “Osteoporosis is serious, and getting enough calcium can help prevent it.”
In your good-health quest, reach for calcium-rich foods, such as:
- Milk, yogurt and cheese.
- Leafy greens like kale and collard greens.
- Fortified foods such as orange juice, soy milk and cereals.
Most adults should be getting 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Women over 50 and men over 70 should aim for 1,200 mg. (An 8-ounce glass of milk or fortified juice contains about 300 mg.)
If you aren’t getting enough from your diet, supplements can still be a good option, Dr. Cho says. But it’s always best to talk to your doctor. He or she can discuss your risk of coronary artery disease and osteoporosis, and help you find the right balance.