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Vitamin D Deficiency Can Lead to an Increased Risk of Death in Older People (January 24, 2013)

Most people know that Vitamin D, also known as the “sunlight vitamin” since it is produced after exposure to the sun, is vital for good health. This vitamin may be even more important than previously thought, however. New research suggests that maintaining an effective vitamin D balance may be essential for extending lifespan in older adults. Vitamin deficiency, particularly vitamin D deficiency is of greatest concern during the winter season when days are short and cold.

The Risks of Vitamin D Deficiency

According to a study performed by the Davis Health System in California, people in the northern California area who were suffering from metabolic syndrome also frequently had low levels of this important vitamin. This is especially problematic for elderly people who are already frail, since vitamin D can affect bone structure and muscle function. Another study by Oregon State University adds to this data. Older adults have nearly a 1/3 higher risk of early death when their vitamin D levels are low. The highest risk was found among those with high levels of frailty.

Why the Imbalance?

Older people may develop a vitamin D deficiency for a number of reasons. One is that a decreased ability to chew tough foods can lead them to avoid a diet high in this vitamin. Another is that many high vitamin D foods are relatively expensive, making them difficult for people on fixed incomes to obtain regularly. While exposure to sunlight provides most people with enough of this vitamin, people with disabilities or who live in unsafe neighborhoods may have trouble going out frequently enough to maintain a healthy vitamin balance.

When Vitamin D Supplementation Isn't Appropriate

For many people, the answer to low levels of vitamin D is simply to choose fortified foods or to consume over-the-counter supplements, but this won't work for all patients. That's because some people have genetic variations that make it difficult to take a high-dose vitamin D supplement without damage to other systems. For a portion of the population, consuming these supplements leads to calcification of the aorta, the largest blood vessel in the human body, as well as the coronary arteries. This condition keeps the blood vessels from expanding and contracting properly, leading to cardiovascular damage and an increased risk of life-threatening conditions.

A Balanced Approach

Because of the risk of automatically choosing supplements, older people and their healthcare providers must approach the issue of low vitamin D levels carefully. All patients should receive a blood test, either a Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy or Vitamin D, 1, 25 Hydroxy, to determine whether or not vitamin levels fall below the threshold for increased risk of death. In people who don't get enough vitamin D, doctors and patients should use multiple approaches to correct the problem, creating an individualized plan that suits each person's budget, mobility and other situational limitations. In general, patients should attempt to seek vitamin D from sunlight and dietary sources first, before turning to supplementation. While a pill may seem like an easy solution, a balanced diet and regular activity are more likely to support overall health in ways that supplements can't provide.

Vitamin D Is Not Just for the Elderly

While the OSU study findings affect primarily older adults, that doesn't mean this isn't the only population that should be concerned about vitamin D levels. Up to 70 percent of the United States population doesn't get enough vitamin D, especially those who live in northern climates where harsh winters can prevent adequate sun exposure. People of all ages who have lower levels of this vitamin are more likely to suffer from depression and some other psychological problems. They're also much more likely to have muscle weakness, exhaustion, trouble walking and other symptoms of frailty. If even people in the Golden State aren't getting enough vitamin D, those in areas with less sunny, welcoming climates may be in worse condition. Since vitamin D is essential to health and long life, it may be time to revisit basic dietary recommendations, get more outdoor activity, and choose supplementation when those options aren't sufficient. This might be difficult for some patients, but the rewards are definitely worthwhile.