Osteoporosis, a systemic skeletal disease characterized by a low bone mass, is a major public health problem in EC member states because of the high incidence of fragility fractures, especially hip and vertebral fracture. In EC member states the high incidence of osteoporotic fractures leads to considerable mortality, morbidity, reduced mobility and decreased quality of life. In 1995 the number of hip fractures in 15 countries of EC has been 382.000 and the estimated total care cost of about 9 billion of ECUs. Given the magnitude of the problem public health measures are important for preventive intervention.
Skeletal bone mass is determined by a combination of endogenous (genetic, hormonal) and exogenous (nutritional, physical activity) factors. Nutrition plays an important role in bone health. The two nutrients essential for bone health are calcium and vitamin D. Reduced supplies of calcium are associated with a reduced bone mass and osteoporosis, whereas a chronic and severe vitamin D deficiency leads to osteomalacia, a metabolic bone disease characterized by a decreased mineralization of bone. Vitamin D insufficiency, the preclinical phase of vitamin D deficiency, is most commonly found in the elderly. The major causes of vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are decreased renal hydroxylation of vitamin D, poor nutrition, scarce exposition to sunlight and a decline in the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin.
The daily average calcium intake in Europe has been evaluated in the SENECA study concerning the diet of elderly people from 19 towns of 10 European countries. In about one third of subjects the dietary calcium intake results were very low, between 300 and 600 mg/day in women, and 350 and 700 mg/day in men. Calcium supplements reduce the rate of bone loss in osteoporotic patients. Some recent studies have reported a significant positive effect of calcium treatment not only on bone mass but also on fracture incidence. The SENECA study, has also shown that vitamin D insufficiency is frequent in elderly populations in Europe. There are a number of studies on the effects of vitamin D supplementation on bone loss in the elderly, showing that supplementations with daily doses of 400–800 IU of vitamin D, given alone or in combination with calcium, are able to reverse vitamin D insufficiency, to prevent bone loss and to improve bone density in the elderly.
In recent years, there has been much uncertainty about the intake of calcium for various ages and physiological states. In 1998, the expert committee of the European Community in the Report on Osteoporosis-Action on prevention, has given the recommended daily dietary allowances (RDA) for calcium at all stage of life. For the elderly population, above age 65 the RDA is 700–800 mg/day. The main source of calcium in the diet are dairy products (milk, yoghurts and cheese) fish (sardines with bones), few vegetables and fruits. The optimal way to achieve adequate calcium intake is through the diet. However, when dietary sources are scarce or not well tolerated, calcium supplementation may be used. Calcium is generally well tolerated and reports of significant side-effects are rare.
Adequate sunlight exposure may prevent and cure vitamin D insufficiency. However, the sunlight exposure or the ultraviolet irradiation are limited by concern about skin cancer and skin disease. The most rational approach to reducing vitamin D insufficiency is supplementation. In Europe, the RDA is 400–800 IU (10–20 μg) daily for people aged 65 years or over. This dose is safe and free of side effects.
In conclusion, in Europe a low calcium intake and a suboptimal vitamin D status are very common in the elderly. Evidence supports routine supplementation for these people at risk of osteoporosis, by providing a daily intake of 700–800 mg of calcium and 400–800 IU of vitamin D. This is an effective, safe and cheap means of preventing osteoporotic fractures.