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Vitamin D deficiency linked to dementia: study

Dementia is one of the big bogeymen as we age and one of the leading reasons people are placed in care.

But what if we could significantly reduce the risk just by taking a pill –one with almost no side-effects –or by going outside more?

In an Australian breakthrough, a study conducted by the University of South Australia has found a direct link between dementia and a lack of vitamin D.

The study found:

  • Low levels of vitamin D were associated with lower brain volumes and an increased risk of dementia and stroke.
  • Genetic analyses supported a causal effect of vitamin D deficiency and dementia.
  • In some populations, 17 per cent of dementia cases might be prevented by increasing everyone to normal levels of vitamin D (50nmol/L).

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The study set out to investigate the association between vitamin D and the risk of dementia and stroke, and the results have been published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The South Australian study involved 294,514 participants whose data was sourced from the UK Biobank. Senior investigator Professor Elina Hypponen says the findings have major implications for dementia risk.

“Vitamin D is a hormone precursor that is increasingly recognised for widespread effects, including on brain health. But until now, it has been very difficult to examine what would happen if we were able to prevent vitamin D deficiency,” Prof. Hypponen says.

“Our study is the first to examine the effect of very low levels of vitamin D on the risks of dementia and stroke, using robust genetic analyses among a large population.

“In some contexts, where vitamin D deficiency is relatively common, our findings have important implications for dementia risks.

“Indeed, in this UK population, we observed that up to 17 per cent of dementia cases might have been avoided by boosting vitamin D levels to be within a normal range.”

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Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia, the leading cause of death for women and in 2022 there are an estimated 487,500 Australians living with dementia. Dementia Australia says that number is expected to increase to almost 1.1 million by 2058.

But it’s not just those directly affected by dementia who suffer. It’s estimated that almost 1.6 million Australians are involved in the care of someone living with dementia.

“If we’re able to change this reality through ensuring that none of us is severely vitamin D deficient, it would also have further benefits and we could change the health and wellbeing for thousands,” Prof. Hypponen says.

“Most of us are likely to be okay but for anyone, who for whatever reason, may not receive enough vitamin D from the sun, modifications to diet may not be enough, and supplementation may well be needed.”

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So what is vitamin D, and how can we get more?

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, vitamin D is both a nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies make.

It is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are both critical for building bone, although scientists have found many of the body’s tissues and organs have receptors for vitamin D, which suggest roles beyond bone health.

Vitamin D can also reduce cancer cell growth, help to control infections and reduce inflammation.

You can ingest vitamin D through food, but not many foods have high levels so the easiest way to get enough vitamin D is through supplements.

Human skin also produces vitamin D, although this is an unreliable source as many people live in places where sunlight is limited, they have limited exposure to sunlight or darker skin.

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