Vitamin D :  'could stave off mental decline in the elderly'

mental declineVitamin D should be trialled for its ability to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Supplements of the 'sunshine vitamin' may help to stave off the mental decline that comes with old age, say researchers.

A new study has shown a close association between mental function in older people and levels of vitamin D in the body.

Vitamin D, which is made in the skin by the action of sunlight, was already known to be important to the immune system and for keeping bones strong - especially in those of advancing years.

Research data on almost 2,000 English adults aged 65 and over showed that as their vitamin D levels went down, degrees of mental impairment went up.

Compared with those who had optimum levels of vitamin D, individuals with the lowest levels were more than twice as likely to have blunted mental faculties.

People with impaired mental function are known to be more susceptible to dementia illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease.

Vitamin D supplementation should now be investigated for its potential to reduce the risk of mental impairment and dementia, according to the research scientists.

Although vitamin D in the body largely comes from sunlight exposure, the ability of the skin to generate the vitamin in this way decreases with age.

UV Rays from Sunlight for Vitamin D ProductionFor the same amount of sunlight, an elderly person will produce only 20 per cent of the vitamin D made by a young person.

For older people it is therefore more important they obtain vitamin D from other sources, which include oily fish, eggs, breakfast cereals, margarine and supplements. Exposure to UV should be encouraged before decline begins.

Dr Iain Lang, from the Peninsular Medical School based in Exeter and Plymouth, who took part in the study, said: 'For those of us who live in countries where there are dark winters without much sunlight, like the UK, getting enough vitamin D can be a real problem - particularly for older people, who absorb less vitamin D from sunlight.

'One way to address this might be to provide older adults with vitamin D supplements.

'This has been proposed in the past as a way of improving bone health in older people, but our results suggest it might also have other benefits.

'We need to investigate whether vitamin D supplementation is a cost-effective and low-risk way of reducing older people's risks of developing cognitive impairment and dementia.'

Dementia affects 700,000 people in the UK, most of whom have Alzheimer's. It is predicted that this figure will rise to more than a million by 2025.

More than 60,000 deaths a year are attributable to the condition, and the financial burden of dementia on the UK is believed to be in excess of £17billion a year.

By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 3:28 PM on 22nd January 2009

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