Suffering a senior moment? It might be lack of vitamin D

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Thursday, April 30, 2009)

By Gail Appleson St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Forget your keys recently, can’t remember where you put your reading glasses and feeling a little blue?

It could be that the planets are out of alignment, but a better explanation might be that you’re not getting enough vitamin D.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine studying the effects of vitamin D deficiency on the elderly have found a correlation of mild depression and forgetfulness with low levels of vitamin D.

What they want to know now is whether a vitamin D deficiency can cause dementia and major depression or if the illnesses can lead to the deficiency, said Dr. Consuelo Wilkins, a geriatrician who heads the study.

She said that as many as 75 percent of older adults suffer from vitamin D deficiency.

The three-year study, which began in 2006, involves 110 people over age 65, she said. The participants have their blood tested every six months.

So far, the blood test results show that volunteers who performed worse on cognitive tests and who also report feeling a little depressed also have lower levels of vitamin D.

“We have confirmed that relationship,” Wilkins said.

Americans ages 50 and older are at increased risk of developing vitamin D deficiency because as people age their kidneys and liver are less able to convert vitamin D to its active hormone form.

In addition changes to the skin means that vitamin D cannot be synthesized as efficiently from sunlight. Also, older adults often spend less time outdoors than younger adults.

While there are some foods with higher levels of vitamin D like salmon, particularly wild salmon, and sardines, they don’t provide as much vitamin D as exposure to sunlight.

“If you are young and healthy and spend 15 minutes on the beach in Florida with no sunscreen you get 10,000 to 20,000 units of vitamin D. But you only get 300 units from a serving of salmon,” Wilkins said.

She recommends that adults over 50 take 1,000 units of vitamin D; inexpensive generics are fine.

“We spend too much on drugs to treat illnesses,” she said. “Prevention is a better option.”

Copyright 2009 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.