Mental Health

Vitamin D could help people with cognitive decline, study shows

Vitamin D is present in the brain and is associated with better cognitive function.

Vitamin D is present in the brain and is associated with better cognitive function. Image: Unsplash/Michele Blackwell

Taraneh Tufts
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Mental Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • The brains of people with cognitive decline fare better with higher levels of vitamin D, research finds.
  • However, experts caution people not to use large doses of vitamin D supplements as a preventive measure.
  • And they say further research is needed to understand exactly how vitamin D affects brain function.

The brains of people with cognitive decline fare better with higher levels of vitamin D, research finds.

“This research reinforces the importance of studying how food and nutrients create resilience to protect the aging brain against diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias,” says senior and corresponding author Sarah Booth, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts and lead scientist of the HNRCA’s Vitamin K Team.

Vitamin D supports many functions in the body, including immune responses and maintaining healthy bones. Dietary sources include fatty fish and fortified beverages (such as milk or orange juice); brief exposure to sunlight also provides a dose of vitamin D.

“Many studies have implicated dietary or nutritional factors in cognitive performance or function in older adults, including many studies of vitamin D, but all of them are based on either dietary intakes or blood measures of vitamin D,” says lead author Kyla Shea, a scientist on the Vitamin K Team and an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. “We wanted to know if vitamin D is even present in the brain, and if it is, how those concentrations are linked to cognitive decline.”

Booth, Shea, and their team examined samples of brain tissue from 209 participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a long-term study of Alzheimer’s disease that began in 1997. Researchers at Rush University assessed the cognitive function of the participants, older people with no signs of cognitive impairment, as they aged, and analyzed irregularities in their brain tissue after death.

In the study, researchers looked for vitamin D in four regions of the brain—two associated with changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease, one associated with forms of dementia linked to blood flow, and one region without any known associations with cognitive decline related to Alzheimer’s disease or vascular disease. They found that vitamin D was indeed present in brain tissue, and high vitamin D levels in all four regions of the brain correlated with better cognitive function.

However, the levels of vitamin D in the brain didn’t associate with any of the physiological markers associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the brain studied, including amyloid plaque buildup, Lewy body disease, or evidence of chronic or microscopic strokes. This means it’s still unclear exactly how vitamin D might affect brain function.

“Dementia is multifactorial, and lots of the pathological mechanisms underlying it have not been well characterized,” Shea says. “Vitamin D could be related to outcomes that we didn’t look at yet, but plan to study in the future.”

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Vitamin D is also known to vary between racial and ethnic populations, and most of the participants in the original Rush cohort were white. The researchers are planning follow-up studies using a more diverse group of subjects to look at other brain changes associated with cognitive decline. They hope their work leads to a better understanding of the role vitamin D may play in staving off dementia.

However, experts caution people not to use large doses of vitamin D supplements as a preventive measure. The recommended dose of vitamin D is 600 IU for people 1-70 years old, and 800 IU for those older—excessive amounts can cause harm and have been linked to the risk of falling.

“We now know that vitamin D is present in reasonable amounts in human brains, and it seems to be correlated with less decline in cognitive function,” Shea says. “But we need to do more research to identify the neuropathology that vitamin D is linked to in the brain before we start designing future interventions.”

Support for the work came from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, as well as the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Complete information on authors, funders, and conflicts of interest is available in the published paper. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the US Department of Agriculture.

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Mental HealthAgeing and Longevity
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