Calcium and protein are essential to keeping your bones healthy — especially as you get older. But what's the best way to make sure your body is getting these nutrients — foods or supplements? A new study offers an answer.

Seniors who live in residential facilities for assisted living, memory care or nursing care often don’t get enough calcium and protein in their diets. A lack of these nutrients can lead to weak bones and more falls and fractures. About a third of all hip fractures occur among older people living in facilities that care for the aged.

Facilities that provided extra dairy foods had 33 percent fewer fractures, 46 percent fewer hip fractures and 11 percent fewer falls.

Most people are aware of the link between dairy products and bone health, but there has been little research into the relationship between increasing the daily intake of these foods in order to reduce the risk of fractures in older people. Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the University of California, Davis took a closer look at whether consuming a recommended daily intake of calcium and protein from food would reduce the risk of falls and fractures. It did.

Over 7,100 residents in 60 care facilities who had adequate vitamin D levels but were deficient in calcium and protein participated in the two-year study. The average age of the residents was 86 years. The study set the benchmark for calcium intake at 1,300 milligrams per day. The desirable protein intake was set at 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. Because women are generally at greater risk of fracture due to their higher rate of osteoporosis, about 70 percent of those in the study were women.

At half of the facilities residents were provided with extra milk, yogurt and cheese to guarantee they ate 1,142 mg per day of calcium and 1.1 g protein/kg body weight per day. The other half of facilities continued their same menus, offering about 700 mg per day of calcium and 0.9 g protein per kg body weight per day.

During the two years of the study, 324 fractures occurred of which 135 were hip fractures. In addition, there were 4,302 falls and 1,974 deaths recorded.

The facilities offering extra dairy foods had 33 percent fewer fractures, 46 percent fewer hip fracture and 11 percent fewer falls. This risk reduction was similar to the results of studies using powerful drug therapy to increase bone strength in people with osteoporosis. There was no difference in the death rate among the two groups of residents.

Simple dietary changes can help reduce seniors’ risk of falls and fractures. Residential facilities for older adults can adjust their menus to make sure residents are given foods that contain adequate calcium and protein — more milk, more yogurt and more cheese, for example — to keep bones strong. A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can perform a nutritional analysis of a facility’s menus and make the necessary positive changes.

The study is published in The BMJ.