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Pay attention to calcium intake, experts urge

Calcium may not be the hip issue of the '90s, but it's no less important than it ever was.

Dr. Barbara Levine of the Calcium Information Center in New York City explains why it behooves us to pay attention.

"Osteoporosis kills as many people as breast cancer," she says. "It has a 20 percent mortality rate and it costs millions in health care, with the complications of breaking a hip."

Research shows that we reach our peak bone mass between 20 and 25. After that we don't add any bone mass but we need additional calcium to maintain what we have.

"We haven't paid attention to our kids, particularly adolescent girls," says Levine, an assistant professor of medicine at Cornell University Medical College.

Most girls don't get more than 500 mg of calcium a day and they need 1,200 mg, the equivalency of four 8-ounce servings of skim milk. After that, men and women need 1,000 mg a day. After menopause, women need 1,500 mg and men continue to need 1,000 mg.

While 61 percent of women report drinking milk as their main calcium source, says Levine, only 23 percent knew it would take a little more than three 8-ounce glasses of milk every day to provide the right amount of calcium.

When trying to up your intake of calcium, remember that caffeine, sodium and fat interfere with absorption. So does alcohol, in all probability, so forget those coffee liqueur-and-milk drinks as your calcium intake of the day.

The high fiber of a high-fiber cereal may also interfere with absorption.

Says Levine, "There is still value in putting milk on your cereal, but you need to think about getting adequate calcium the rest of the day."

Milk products are still among the best sources of calcium because the vitamin D and lactose content help absorption. Low-fat yogurt is also an excellent source.

New research is looking at the link between premenstrual syndrome and calcium and between calcium and cancer.

"Calcium may protect the intestine and help prevent some of the cancers," Levine says.

Because of the strong genetic component in osteoporosis, "if your grandmother or mother had it, you should be tested in your 40s and certainly at menopause to see if you're losing bone mass rapidly."