"Millions of needless deaths"

"Millions of needless deaths" is the title of an editorial by Life Extension Magazine's Bill Faloon.

". . . If vitamin D’s only benefit was to reduce coronary heart attack rates by 142%, the net savings (after deducting the cost of the vitamin D) if every American supplemented properly would be around $84 billion each year. That’s enough to put a major dent in the health care cost crisis that is forecast to bankrupt Medicare and many private insurance plans."

Although I don't agree with all the over-the-top commentary that issues from Mr. Faloon or Life Extension (although I sit on their Medical Advisory Board), I agree with virtually all of the issues he raises with vitamin D.

Despite the enormously compelling observations of vitamin D potential effects in populations, the medical community's reluctance comes from the lack of treatment data. In other words, what we lack are long-term data on vitamin D supplementation vs. placebo on rate of heart attack, vitamin D vs. placebo on risk of colon cancer, etc.

The data that exists connecting vitamin D levels with cardiovascular risk originate from three population observations:

1) The NHANES data in 16,000 participants showed 20% increased risk of cardiovascular events in those with vitamin D levels <20>20 ng/ml after factoring in all standard risk factors.

Another NHANES analysis showed the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in those with cardiovascular disease.

2) A German study of 2500 participants that showed showed the lowest quartile of vitamin D levels (<13.3>28.4 ng/ml.

3) The Health Professionals' Follow-Up Study of 18,000 males showed a 2.4-fold increase in cardiovascular events in those with vitamin D levels <15>30 ng/ml.

While we lack treatment data (vitamin D vs. placebo) in a large population, we do have data that Suzie Rockway, Mary Kwasny (both from Rush University, Chicago) and I generated on the effect of vitamin D as a part of a broader treatment program on coronary calcium scores:

Effect of a Combined Therapeutic Approach of Intensive Lipid Management, Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation, and Increased Serum 25 (OH) Vitamin D on Coronary Calcium Scores in Asymptomatic Adults.
Davis W, Rockway S, Kwasny M. Amer J Ther 2008 (Dec 15).

The impact of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid, and vitamin D3 supplementation on atherosclerotic plaque was assessed through serial computed tomography coronary calcium scoring (CCS). Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol reduction with statin therapy has not been shown to reduce or slow progression of serial CCS in several recent studies, casting doubt on the usefulness of this approach for tracking atherosclerotic progression. In an open-label study, 45 male and female subjects with CCS of >/= 50 without symptoms of heart disease were treated with statin therapy, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to achieve low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides /=60 mg/dL; and vitamin D3 supplementation to achieve serum levels of >/=50 ng/mL 25(OH) vitamin D, in addition to diet advice. Lipid profiles of subjects were significantly changed as follows: total cholesterol -24%, low-density lipoprotein -41%; triglycerides -42%, high-density lipoprotein +19%, and mean serum 25(OH) vitamin D levels +83%. After a mean of 18 months, 20 subjects experienced decrease in CCS with mean change of -14.5% (range 0% to -64%); 22 subjects experienced no change or slow annual rate of CCS increase of +12% (range 1%-29%). Only 3 subjects experienced annual CCS progression exceeding 29% (44%-71%). Despite wide variation in response, substantial reduction of CCS was achieved in 44% of subjects and slowed plaque growth in 49% of the subjects applying a broad treatment program.

I also summed up the data as of early 2008 in a Life Extension article:

Vitamin D's Crucial Role in Cardiovascular Protection

I do agree with Mr. Faloon: It's time to take the vitamin D issue very seriously. Personally, I think it is foolhardy to not correct vitamin D deficiency, even in the absence of long-term treatment data.

Should we subject people living in tropical climates with vitamin D blood levels of 90 ng/ml to long-term observation? Though that has not yet been done, it has been done--in effect--through observations on the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and various cancers by latitude: the farther away from the equator, the greater the prevalence of these diseases.

That's more than good enough for me.

Comments (4) -

  • Anonymous

    1/7/2009 1:11:00 AM |

    How is it possible to reduce the risk of heart attack by 142%? I studied a different math, I guess.

  • Jenny

    1/7/2009 7:22:00 PM |

    Dr. Davis,

    Though I have seen the research suggesting that low Vitamin D is strongly associated with diabetes, I wonder if you can comment on this study that found that there was no change on insulin sensitivity when Vitamin D levels were raised in people without diabetes.

    Glucose tolerance and vitamin D: Effects of treating vitamin D deficiency. Kamilia Tai et al.

    Your study looks very interesting, and I hope you can get it published. But because you altered several variables at once it is not possible to attribute the effect to any of the variables in isolation.

    I am eagerly awaiting more research that will see if Vitamin D supplementation actually reverses health conditions, or whether high levels are a marker of some other problem--changes in fat tissue, kidney function, etc.

  • vin

    1/8/2009 4:20:00 PM |

    Rockway,Kwasny study you quoted showed reduction in calcium count in 44% and slow progress in 49% of the people. Figure of 44% success rate is very disappointing, seeing the test subjects were given almost the same food and supplement regime as you recommend in your blog.
    What is wrong with the test? Why isn't the success rate 90%?

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 12:26:59 PM |

    While we lack treatment data (vitamin D vs. placebo) in a large population, we do have data that Suzie Rockway, Mary Kwasny (both from Rush University, Chicago) and I generated on the effect of vitamin D as a part of a broader treatment program on coronary calcium scores: