The Broken-Bone Epidemic

Calcium deficiency in U.S. kids is at an all-time high -- and their bodies may pay the price for a lifetime.

Osteoporosis and Kids

Glass of milk

You wouldn't think that osteoporosis -- the brittle-bone disease that afflicts 10 million Americans over age 50 -- is something you need to worry about for your kids. But now you do. Just ask Maribel Burke, a mother of two from Jacksonville, Florida. Two years ago, her 9-year-old daughter, Christina, mysteriously began breaking bones. Within a span of 18 months, she fractured each arm -- twice. "The first time she was just catching a kickball," Burke says. It happened again when another child bumped into her on a slide. As one cast came off, another went on.

Christina's mom finally enrolled her in a bone-density study at Nemours Children's Clinic, in Jacksonville, where they received this shocking diagnosis: Christina had osteoporosis. The doctor was surprised too -- until Burke explained that her daughter's pediatrician had told her to stay away from dairy products because they might be causing her migraines. The doctor at the clinic instructed Christina to start drinking milk again and prescribed a supplement containing calcium and vitamin D. The new regimen has made a huge difference: Christina's bone density has improved, and she hasn't had a fracture since.

Unnerving Trend

While this may sound like an extreme example, a surprising number of kids today have weak bones -- and they're getting fractures at an alarming rate. A study comparing the residents of Rochester, Minnesota, from 1999 to 2001 with those of 1969 to 1971, for example, found a 42 percent increase in broken arms, and the biggest jump was among kids ages 8 to 14. "Kids are more calcium-deficient than ever before," says Sundeep Khosla, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, in Rochester, and the study's lead researcher. That's because children are drinking way too much soda and juice, and not nearly enough milk.

Calcium is essential for children to develop strong, healthy bones. But many kids aren't getting what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says they need: 500mg a day for 1- to 3-year-olds; 800mg a day for 4- to 8-year-olds; and 1,300mg a day for kids ages 9 and up. Nearly half of preschoolers and more than 60 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds fail to meet their daily calcium requirements.

Experts warn that a calcium shortfall can set up your child for a bone-density deficit as an adult. "Your child reaches her peak bone mass around age 18, and eventually, it starts to decline," says Susan Coupey, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City.

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