Vitamin D, or sunshine vitamin, has long been touted to strengthen bones and support our immune system. Research has linked vitamin D deficiency to chronic health problems and early death. A team of researchers from Tufts University discovered that the vitamin can also affect the cognitive function of our brain.
In a new study published in Alzheimers & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimers Association, researchers studied vitamin D in brain tissue. They found that higher levels of the vitamin were associated with better cognitive function, stronger memory and slower progression of cognitive decline. This study was the first time vitamin D levels were examined in brain tissue, according to the authors’ current study, as experts estimate that the number of people with dementia worldwide will exceed 150 million by 2050.
This study reinforces the importance of studying how food and nutrients create resilience to protect the aging brain from diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias, said Sarah Booth, study author and director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center. Aging at Tufts University in a press release.
Using brain tissue from 290 participants in an ongoing Alzheimer’s study called the Rush Memory and Aging Project, researchers examined vitamin D levels in four brain regions. Elevated levels of vitamin D in the brain were associated with a 25% to 33% lower likelihood of dementia and mild cognitive impairment when measured at the last doctor’s visit before the participant died.
Kyla Shea, a study author and research scientist on aging at the Jean Mayer USDA Center for Human Nutrition Research at Tufts University, tells the story of resetting by looking at brain levels, not just blood levels. Luck. Establishing that vitamin D is present in the human brain is an important step in understanding the biology, but it is not enough to establish causality or recommend specific amounts of vitamin D for older adults. In the future, rigorously designed studies could begin to outline possible dietary guidelines with specific nutrients for brain health, Shea says.
However, this study found no association between brain vitamin D levels and the formation of Lewy bodies or amyloid beta, which indicate the development of Lewy body dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively. To illustrate the mechanisms of vitamin D action in the brain, Shea plans to further study the structure of the brain.
Vitamin D status also varies by race, and the authors note in the study that their cohort was predominantly white. Because of this key limitation, Shea hopes to see if the generalizations of this study can be extended to a more diverse population in future work using the Minority Aging Research Study.
We still have a lot of work to do to understand exactly what [vitamin D] does, says Shea.
Vitamin D can be consumed through food, including several fish such as salmon, trout, and tuna, and through orange juice or vitamin D-fortified milk. The body also produces vitamin D naturally through exposure to the sun. Some people may benefit from supplements to boost vitamin levels.
The recommended dietary intake of vitamin D is 600 IU per day for 1-70 year olds and 800 IU for over 70 year olds. (Reference: a three-ounce serving of trout has 645 IU, and one cup of 2% fortified milk has 120 IU.)
Taking too much vitamin D also poses a risk, especially when used in supplements: It can cause excessive calcium build-up, called hypercalcemia, increases the risk of kidney damage, and can cause falls and other injuries, according to Harvard Health. Talk to your doctor to determine how much vitamin D you need and if you should consider taking supplements.
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