Vitamin D and programmed aging?

As we age, we lose the capacity to activate vitamin D in the skin.

Studies suggest that, between ages 20 and 70, there is a 75% reduction in the ability to activate vitamin D. The capacity of conversion from 25 (OH) vitamin D to 1,25 di(OH) vitamin D also diminishes.

Holick M. Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease.

From Holick, M. 2006

This would explain why 70-year olds come to the office, just back from the Caribbean sporting dark brown tans, are still deficient, often severely, in blood levels of vitamin D (25(OH) vitamin D). A tan does not equal vitamin D.

Courtesy Ipanemic

A practical way of looking at it is that anyone 40 years old or older has lost the majority of ability for vitamin D activation.

This often makes me wonder if the loss of vitamin D activating potential is nature's way to get rid of us. After all, after 40, we've pretty much had our opportunity to recreate and make our contribution to the species (at least in a primitive world in which humans evolved): we've exhausted our reproductive usefulness to the species.

Is the programmed decline of vitamin D skin activation a way to ensure that we develop diseases of senescence (aging)? The list of potential consequences of vitamin D deficiency includes: osteoporosis, poor balance and coordination, falls and fractures; cancer of the breast, bladder, colon, prostate, and blood; reductions in HDL, increases in triglycerides; increased inflammation (C-reactive protein, CRP); declining memory and mentation; coronary heart disease.

Isn't that also pretty much a list that describes aging?

A fascinating argument in support of this idea came from study from St Thomas’ Hospital and the London School of Medicine:

Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women

Telomeres are the "tails" of DNA that were formerly thought to be mistakes, just coding for nonsense. But more recent thinking has proposed that telomeres may provide a counting mechanism that shortens with aging and accelerates with stress and illness. This study suggests that both vitamin D and inflammation (CRP) impact telomere length: the lower the vitamin D, the shorter the telomere length, particularly when inflammation is greater.

Data supporting vitamin D's effects on preventing or treating cancer, osteoporosis, lipid abnormalities, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, etc., is developing rapidly.

Now the big question: If declining vitamin D is nature's way of ensuring our decline and death, does maintaining higher vitamin D also maintain youthfulness?

I don't have an answer, but it's a really intriguing idea.

Comments (8) -

  • donnyrosart

    7/9/2008 4:21:00 PM |

    With aging, comes thinning skin. Maybe that has something to do with it? I was reading somewhere that topical skin creams that contain steroids can cause thinning of the skin. I wonder if endogenous hormonal imbalance can have a similar result?

    In this study;

    children treated with prednisone had lower levels of 1,25(OH)2D.

    and I've seen people on forums addressing asthma treatment with prednisone and the thinning of skin as a result.

  • ethyl d

    7/9/2008 4:23:00 PM |

    May we therefore assume that, although we lose the ability to activate vitamin D from sun exposure as we age, D absorbed from dietary sources (whether food or D3 gel capsules)is still fully available to the aging body?

  • Stephan

    7/9/2008 5:05:00 PM |

    Hi Dr Davis,

      Nice post.  What you would need to evaluate your question is a population that fulfills their vitamin D requirement through diet.  That population existed at one time, the Inuit.  Despite long winters with no sun, they maintained their D by eating large amounts of arctic mammals, fatty fish and their livers.  So you would expect their diet to take skin D synthesis efficiency out of the picture.

    Well it turns out that they had a long maximum lifespan (I got my hands on some lifespan data from a Russian mission in Alaska), with some people often approaching 100 years old.  They had a shorter average lifespan than us of course, due to accidents and disease, however they did not get chronic disease including cancer.  Of course, this is fairly consistent with other HG groups that didn't get so much dietary D, so it's hard to pin the effect on D.

    I've put up two posts about this on my blog, where I review the data:

  • Anonymous

    7/9/2008 7:16:00 PM |

    Is there any difference in the elderly with the amount of vitamin D absorbed into the blood from supplements?

  • Jenny

    7/9/2008 10:40:00 PM |

    Many good points.  But fitness in the Darwinian sense may be influenced by more than one individual's history.  See this
    for only one discussion among many of the "grandmother hypothesis", which posits that among humans, survival of descendants may be advantaged by the entrance of older females into menopause, an anomaly among primates.  It may seem like a stretch, but I think this may be related to your topic, in that vitamin D production and the production of many other hormones seem intimately related to cholesterol and the uses to which it is put in the body.   The cessation of participation in reproduction may not be the negative that it at first appears to be, at least from the standpoint of survival of descendants.  From the standpoint of the individual's personal health it may be less of an advantage--but could it be that if  certain parameters such as Vitamin D could be controlled and corrected to optimal levels in our later years, perhaps each of us could look forward to growing older and dying without ever losing our health, as paradoxical as that might sound.

  • Dr. B G

    7/10/2008 6:00:00 AM |


    I think your observations are right on. There is a paper on skin and how vitamin D circles and transforms to estrogen. In postmenopausal women this is the sole source of estrogen which may theoretically provide continued heart protection if the source is consistent and high enough (and no grains to derange the enzymes which convert vitamin D or activate it).

    Neat link!

  • Anonymous

    7/10/2008 10:44:00 AM |

    If you look at diets of the populations studied by Dr. Weston Price, all of them ate large amounts of fat-soluble vitamins, including Vitamin D. This would ward off the aging skin effect.

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