It seems that lately everyone is touting the amazing benefits of vitamin D. This dual vitamin/hormone has been connected to everything from Alzheimer’s disease, high cholesterol and inflammation, to boosting your immune system, strengthening your bones and muscles, and even fending off cancer.
Throw in the fact that you get this miracle nutrient from good, old-fashioned sunshine, and delicious foods like fish and eggs, and it seems like great health is yours for the taking.
But what happens if you don’t have enough vitamin D? According to a recent study from Australia, a lack of vitamin D can lead to a loss of mental clarity, inflammation and brittle bones.
One of the main areas of vitamin D research is its role in bone and muscle health. Many studies have shown that not only is vitamin D deficiency related to an increased risk of osteoporosis, but supplementing with the nutrient can improve both muscle strength and balance.
Given this, it’s no surprise that vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency have been linked to increased risk of falling in older adults. And, given a combination of poor diet and infrequent exposure to natural sunlight, it’s no wonder our seniors are lacking adequate quantities of vitamin D.
Yet, while we know this to be true, what we don’t know is why. Why does vitamin D deficiency increase an older person’s risk of falling? That’s exactly what our Australian mates set out to discover.
The Physical and Mental Implications of Vitamin D Deficiency
Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, tested a wide variety of neuromuscular and neuropsychological functions in a group of 463 adults, aged 70 to 90 years old.
First, they took blood from each participant to determine vitamin D levels. Deficiency was defined as levels that were less than 30 nmol/L, and insufficiency was defined as levels less than or equal to 50 nmol/L.
Next, they assessed 14 different mental and physical factors:
- Processing speed
- Visuospatial ability
- Cognitive-motor speed
- Task switching ability
- Peripheral sensation
- Visual contrast sensitivity
- Lower limb strength
- Simple reaction time
- Postural sway
- Handgrip strength
- Leaning balance
- Choice stepping reaction time
- Gait speed
Finally, researchers monitored the participants for one year and kept track of the number of falls and injuries from falls (bruise, cut or fracture).
Interestingly, only one-third of the participants had either vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency. Just 10 percent met the criteria for deficiency, while 24 percent were found to have insufficient levels of the nutrient.
Those seniors that fell into this deficient/insufficient group tended to be older, heavier, and had a higher incidence of diabetes and osteoporosis than those with good vitamin D levels. Plus, they also tended to do less planned exercise than their vitamin D sufficient counterparts.
When it came to the physical and mental functions listed above, those participants that had inadequate levels of vitamin D had less muscle strength, slower reaction time, poorer leaning balance and a slower gait. They also did worse on the visuospatial ability, cognitive-motor speed, and task switching ability tests.
And, when it came to falls, the researchers noticed something quite extraordinary. After one year, nearly half of the participants (46 percent) reported at least one fall, and more than half of those (54 percent) resulted in some sort of injury. But that’s not the extraordinary part.
What was most interesting was that vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency was not a risk factor for women … but it was a significant, independent risk factor for men. While the researchers couldn’t say for sure, they hypothesized that one reason for this may be linked to balance.
In determining balance markers, such as stepping and leaning balance tests, men with low levels of vitamin D tended to do poorly. The researchers suggested that this might be a key to why they had more falls.
Researchers concluded that low levels of vitamin D clearly correlated with decreased neuromuscular function and balance control. They determined that these mechanisms may explain why vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency increases a person’s risk of falling.
Get That Vitamin D
One of the most intriguing findings of this study is that two-thirds of the participants actually had good vitamin D levels! The researchers attributed this to the participants’ good health, physical activity levels, and time spent outdoors.
So take a note from the older generation. Try to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes outside every day to soak up that sunshine. Be sure to exercise and eat a good diet full of fruits, vegetables and vitamin D-rich fresh fish.
If you live in the north or in an area that doesn’t get much sun, or you simply cannot get outside as often as you’d like, then be sure to supplement with 800 IU of vitamin D3 every day.
 Menant, JC et al. Relationships between serum vitamin D levels, neuromuscular and neuropsychological function and falls in older men and women. Osteoporos Int. 2011 Apr 20. [Epub ahead of print].
 Kalyani, RR et al. Vitamin D treatment for the prevention of falls in older adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2010;58:1299-1210.