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Calcium-pill confusion

The Women's Health Initiative is on quite a roll. This is a multiyear federal project that tracks thousands of women to try to figure out the true roles of diet and medicines in fighting disease. First came its finding that hormone treatments after menopause do not improve health and may actually hurt it. Then came the study earlier this month, showing that low-fat diets aren't necessarily helpful in fighting breast or colorectal cancer. And now another tried-and-true staple of the medicine cabinet - the calcium pill - is under question.

After following nearly 37,000 women ages 50 to 79, a study has found calcium and Vitamin D supplements weren't effective at preventing broken bones. Effective at increasing the chances of kidney stones - yes. But that isn't why calcium pills are "the biggest seller in the multibillion-dollar dietary-supplement industry," says an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

For women over 50, a balanced diet (a glass of milk; a serving of yogurt; two slices of cheese; cereal and orange juice for breakfast; some bread and vegetables along the way) may provide all the necessary calcium. As these studies show, sometimes medicines can do more harm than good. Sometimes conventional wisdom is flat out wrong.