vitamin-d.jpg
Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias
Caregiving
Vitamins

Lack of Vitamin D Shows A Strong Link to Dementia

Researchers have found a strong link between Vitamin D insufficiency and memory loss that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The effect of the insufficiency is “substantial,” according to the experts from the University of California Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rutgers University. They discovered that people with low vitamin D levels declined at a rate three times faster than those who had adequate vitamin D levels.

The findings indicate the importance of identifying vitamin D insufficiency among the elderly, especially high-risk groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics. People with dark skin are less able to absorb vitamin D from its best source: sunshine.

The research was published 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 Joshua Miller, professor in the UC Davis Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the time when the research was conducted and now professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University.

“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 a very low health risk to doing it,” he said.

The study looked at almost 400 racially and ethnically diverse men and women in Northern California who were participating in research at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Sacramento, Calif. Fifty percent 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, or 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 Center. “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, with only 6.5 percent of African-Americans and 11 percent of Mexican-Americans nationwide consuming the recommended three daily servings of dairy products, the study says.

“I don’t know if replacement therapy would affect these cognitive trajectories. That needs to be researched and we are planning on doing that,” DeCarli said.

“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 color, for whom vitamin D deficiency appears to present an even greater risk,” he said.