Study finds relationship of calcium to brain lesions in older adults

June 21, 2013
A study co-authored by UNC’s John J.B. Anderson, PhD, has found a relationship between calcium levels and the presence of white-matter lesions in the brain, particularly in men and in people with depression.
Dr. John Anderson

Dr. John Anderson

Anderson is professor emeritus of nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and School of Medicine at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He and colleagues conducted a pilot study of 42 adults, ages 60 years and older, that was published June 18 in the journal Nutrients.
The study was led by Martha E. Payne, PhD, Gillings School alumna and associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University. Co-author Douglas R. McQuoid, MPH, biostatistician in Duke’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is also a Gillings School graduate.
White matter is so called because its fibers are covered in myelin, a fatty material that increases the speed of neuronal transmission and appears white. Its purpose is to coordinate messaging between the active parts of the brain, or gray matter. White-matter lesions tend to develop as humans age, slowing down thinking, movement and other body functions, and they increase one’s risk of cognitive impairment, dementia, depression, stroke and physical disability. Cardiovascular incidents seem to make the lesions more prevalent.
High levels of serum calcium, the type actively used by the body, have been associated in previous studies with elevated vascular risk. The researchers therefore sought to determine whether individuals who consumed too much calcium were more likely to develop a higher volume of brain lesions.
Knowing that people suffering from depression tended to 1) exhibit calcium imbalances, and 2) have larger white-matter lesions, the researchers also wanted to consider people in the study who suffered from depression to see if higher rates of calcium affected lesion mass.
Finally, they examined gender differences to determine whether men or women were more sensitive to calcium.
Controlling for age and group (depression vs. comparison), the findings showed a trend for a positive relationship between serum ionized calcium and white matter lesion volume. Analyses of depressed participants showed a significant positive relationship between higher ionic calcium and greater lesion volume but no such association for non-depressed participants. Gender analyses showed a significant positive relationship between higher calcium and greater lesion volume in men only. The authors call for larger studies to confirm their findings.
Study co-authors include Payne, who is also co-director of the Neuropsychiatric Imaging Research Laboratory at Duke University; Cortnee W. Pierce, program coordinator in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke; and David C. Steffens, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center, in Farmington.The study is available online.



Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or