BACKGROUND:: Despite evidence from animal studies for a protective effect of higher calcium and possibly vitamin D intake against colorectal cancer, epidemiologic studies have been inconclusive.

PURPOSE:: We investigated the associations between the intake of calcium and vitamin D and the occurence of colorectal cancer.

METHODS:: In a prospective study, 89 448 female registered nurses who were free of cancer responded to a mailed, semiquantitative food-frequency questionnaire in 1980; dietary information was updated in 1984 and 1986. Through 1992, 501 incident cases of colorectal cancer (396 colon and 105 rectal cancers) were documented. As measures of exposure, we used nutrient intake in 1980 and also two measures of long-term intake on the basis of the three questionnaires: the average of intakes from the three questionnaires and consistent intakes, which were defined as high if women were in the upper tertile on all questionnaires and low if they were in the lower tertile on all questionnaires. To further characterize long-term intake, we conducted analyses excluding women who reported a change in their consumption of milk (primary source of calcium and vitamin D) in the 10 years prior to 1980. Relative risks (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were calculated using the lowest quintile of intake as a reference. The Mantel extension test was used to evaluate linear trends across the categories of nutrient intake. In multivariate analyses, the trends were tested with use of the medians of the intake as a continuous variable in the logistic model. The P values for the trends were two-sided.

RESULTS:: On the basis of the data from the 1980 questionnaire alone, the multivariate RR for colorectal cancer for women in the upper versus the lower quintile were 0.80 (95% CI= 0.60–1.07) for dietary calcium, 0.84 (95% CI = 0.63–1.13) for dietary vitamin D (from foods only), and 0.88 (95% CI = 0.66–1.16) for total vitamin D (from foods and supplements). After the exclusion of women who reported a change in their milk intake, the RRs for colorectal cancer for the highest versus the lowest categories of average intake were 0.74 (95% CI = 0.36–1.50) for dietary calcium, 0.72 (95% CI = 0.34–1.54) for dietary vitamin D, and 0.42 (95% CI = 0.19–0.91) for total vitamin D. The corresponding RRs for the consistency analyses were 0.70 (95% CI = 0.35–1.39) for dietary calcium, 0.59 (95% CI = 0.30–1.16) for dietary vitamin D, and 0.33 (95% CI = 0.16–0.70) for total vitamin D.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings do not support a substantial inverse association between calcium intake and risk of colorectal cancer, but an inverse association between intake of total vitamin D and risk of colorectal cancer was suggested.

IMPLICATIONS: Available evidence does not warrant an increase in calcium intake to prevent colon cancer, but longer-term studies of both calcium and especially vitamin D in relation to colorectal cancer risk are needed.