Lack of Vitamin D Accelerates Cognitive Decline
Older people with low vitamin D levels decline cognitively three times faster than those with adequate Vitamin D levels.
The effect is “substantial” say University of California scientists, with a high correlation between insufficient vitamin D and impaired performance and accelerated decline in areas such as memory loss that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The researchers said their findings amplify the importance of identifying vitamin D insufficiency among the elderly, particularly high-risk groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics, who are less able to absorb the nutrient from its most plentiful source: sunshine. Among those groups and other darker-skinned individuals, low vitamin D should be considered a risk factor for dementia, they said.
The research was published online recently in JAMA Neurology.
“Independent of race or ethnicity, baseline cognitive abilities and a host of other risk factors, vitamin D insufficiency was associated with significantly faster declines in both episodic memory and executive function performance,” said researcher Joshua Miller.
“This work, and that of others, suggests that there is enough evidence to recommend that people in their 60s and older discuss taking a daily vitamin D supplement with their physicians,” Miller said.
“Even if doing so proves to not be effective, there’s still very low health risk to doing it,” he said.
The large study was conducted in nearly 400 racially and ethnically diverse men and women in Northern California. Fifty per cent of participants were Caucasian and 50 percent were African-American or Hispanic. The participants had a mean age of 76 and were either cognitively normal, had mild cognitive impairment, or dementia.
The participants’ serum vitamin D status was measured at the beginning of the study. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency were prevalent among all of the study participants. Overall, 26 percent were deficient and 35 percent were insufficient. Among Caucasians, 54 percent had low vitamin D, compared with 70 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics.
Over five years of follow-up, vitamin D deficient individuals experienced cognitive declines that were two-to-three times faster than those with adequate serum vitamin D levels. In other words it took only two years for the deficient individuals to decline as much as their counterparts with adequate Vitamin D declined during the five-year follow-up period.
“We expected to see declines in individuals with low vitamin D status,” said Charles DeCarli, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Sacramento. “What was unexpected was how profoundly and rapidly [low vitamin D] impacts cognition.”
Exposing the skin to sunlight is the major source of vitamin D. Racial and some ethnic minorities are at greater risk of low vitamin D because the higher concentration of melanin that makes their skin darker — and protects against skin cancer in sunny climates — also inhibits synthesis of vitamin D.
Diet is the other major source of vitamin D. Dietary vitamin D is obtained particularly through dairy consumption. The intake of dairy products is especially low among minority groups.
“This is a vitamin deficiency that could easily be treated and that has other health consequences. We need to start talking about it. And we need to start talking about it, particularly for people of colour, for whom vitamin D deficiency appears to present an even greater risk,” he said.