Your bones have many vital functions. Along with providing a framework for your body, they interact with your muscles for a wide range of movements and protect many of your internal organs. Bone is a metabolically active organ that continually remodels itself, says Shivani Sahni, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School who studies age-related bone loss.
One of the most common conditions that affects our skeletal system as we age is osteoporosis, causing millions of broken bones every year, particularly in postmenopausal women over age 50. According to Sahni, osteoporosis throws the bone-rebuilding process out of balance, leading to further bone loss. Good nutrition can help build and maintain healthy bone mass, and these nutrients in particular are standouts.
Clinical trials show that calcium supplements assist with building bone and minimizing loss, Sahni says. Bone is the largest storage spot for calcium, and because the body maintains tight control over calcium circulating in the blood, when your body becomes low in calcium, it removes it from the bone, Sahni explains. When supplementing, Sahni suggests a mini calcium supplement, containing 400 to 500 mg calcium per day, to go with about 800 mg calcium from the diet. Calcium-rich foods include milk, yogurt, cheese, seafood, dark-green leafy vegetables, legumes, dried fruit and tofu.
Adequate vitamin D is critical for boosting calcium absorption. Our natural ability to create vitamin D from the sun declines with age and in the winter, causing deficiency. People with dark skin may also not make enough vitamin D from the sun, Sahni says. A 2019 meta-analysis looking at more than 34,000 participants found that daily supplementation with both vitamin D and calcium reduced hip fractures significantly. Sahni recommends 600 to 800 IU of vitamin D daily.
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Research has found that greater blood levels of vitamin B12 are associated with increased bone density. It’s a good idea for older individuals to take B12 if they have been tested and have a low level of B12, or if they are taking any kind of acid blocker (like Prilosec), says Katherine L. Tucker, Ph.D., a nutritional epidemiologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of one such study. Vegans are also often deficient in vitamin B12 unless they use fortified products or take supplements. Tucker recommends 500 to 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12 daily; although this is a high amount, she explains, most is not absorbed.
Lesser known than other nutrients for bone health, vitamin K2 plays an important role in bone remodeling, with studies linking it to increased bone mass density and bone strength, as well as fewer fractures. Found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, vitamin K2 tends to be low in the Western diet, Tucker says. Some new supplements combine vitamin D with K2, and research shows that they may work better together than separately for bone health. Tucker recommends no more than 100 mcg per day.
Other supplements to try: