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Calcium Crisis Affects American Youth

Lack of calcium in youth can lead to osteoporosis later in life.
Lack of calcium in youth can lead to osteoporosis later in life.

Only 13.5 percent of girls and 36.3 percent of boys age 12 to 19 in the United States get the recommended daily amount (RDA) of calcium, placing them at serious risk for osteoporosis and other bone diseases, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because nearly 90 percent of adult bone mass is established by the end of this age range, the nation's youth stand in the midst of a calcium crisis.

"Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), sponsor of the MILK MATTERS calcium education campaign. "Preventing this and other bone diseases begins in childhood. With low calcium intake levels during these important bone growth periods, today's children and teens are certain to face a serious public health problem in the future."

The health risks related to low calcium intake are not just years away, explained Dr. Alexander. Children are drinking more soft drinks and more non-citrus drinks than they used to; meanwhile, milk consumption has dropped. The number of fractures among children and young adults has increased, probably due to lower intakes of calcium. Pediatricians are also seeing the re-emergence of rickets, a bone disease that results from low levels of vitamin D. Rickets became almost nonexistent after vitamin D was added to milk in the 1950s, but is now appearing at greater rates around the country.

But the major effects of this crisis are yet to come.

"As these children get older, this calcium crisis will become more serious as the population starts to show its highest rate of osteoporosis and other bone health problems in our nation's history," Dr. Alexander said. "But we need to remember that this is a preventable and "correctable" public health problem."

Getting children to pay attention to their calcium needs is a challenge for scientists and educators, he adds. For this reason, the NICHD has expanded its Milk Matters campaign and Web site to speak directly to children and their parents about calcium.

Previously, the NICHD developed educational materials that are used primarily by educators, nurses, and physicians to convey the importance of adequate calcium consumption among children and teens. Now, NICHD has expanded its Web site to give children and their parents more direct access to the information and will be adding games and other interactive content specifically for kids.

On the next page, learn more about Milk Matters.