Most of us spend our lives in air-conditioned environments because we are either travelling in cars or spend our day in offices or other air-conditioned buildings. And then we layer ourselves up in sunscreens. The result: as we grow older we are seriously deficient in vitamin D. But this deficiency is putting our mobility at risk, according to a new research by experts at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Naturally, we have difficulty or inability to walk several blocks or climb a flight of stairs, respectively.
The study enlisted over 2000 men and women aged 70-79. Eligible participants reported no difficulty walking one-fourth mile, climbing 10 steps, or performing basic, daily living activities, and were free of life-threatening illness at the beginning of the study. Vitamin D levels were measured in the blood. Occurrence of mobility limitation and disability during follow-up was assessed during annual clinic visits alternating with telephone interviews every six months over six years.
“We observed about a 30 per cent increased risk of mobility limitations for those older adults who had low levels of vitamin D, and almost a two-fold higher risk of mobility disability,” said lead author Denise Houston, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition epidemiologist in the Wake Forest Baptist Department of Geriatrics and Gerontology.
Houston said vitamin D plays an important role in muscle function, so it is plausible that low levels of the vitamin could result in the onset of decreased lower muscle strength and physical performance.
Vitamin D may also indirectly affect physical function as low vitamin D levels have also been associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and lung disease—conditions that are frequent causes of decline in physical function. Houston said people get vitamin D when it is naturally produced in the skin by sun exposure, by eating foods with vitamin D, such as fortified milk, juice and cereals, and by taking vitamin D supplements.
“About one-third of older adults have low vitamin D levels,” she said. “It’s difficult to get enough vitamin D through diet alone and older adults, who may not spend much time outdoors, may need to take a vitamin D supplement.”
Current recommendations call for people over age 70 to get 800 International Units of vitamin D daily in their diet or supplements. Houston pointed out that current dietary recommendations are based solely on vitamin D’s effects on bone health.
“Higher amounts of vitamin D may be needed for the preservation of muscle strength and physical function as well as other health conditions,” she said. “However, clinical trials are needed to determine whether increasing vitamin D levels through diet or supplements has an effect on physical function.”