Can sunlight and vitamin D help to preserve physical function and independence as we age?

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As we age, we are generally more likely to succumb to illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. On top of this, though, we run the risk of becoming infirm. For some this culminates in disability and loss of independence. What can be done, though, to protect against such physical deterioration?

One approach would be to engage in exercise, and specifically ‘resistance’ exercise that can help strengthen muscles. Muscles can shrink and weaken as we age, and doing some regular resistance exercise can help to mitigate this, and so help preserve functionality.

However, it is known that vitamin D plays an important part in muscle structure and function. The risk as we age is that should we become infirm, we’re less likely to venture outdoors. This puts at at risk of vitamin D deficiency, which may compound any physical frailty that is present. This, theoretically at least, can lead us into a bit of a downward spiral which has pretty depressing implications in terms of our health, quality of life and independence.

I was interested to read about some research yesterday which attempted to look at the relationship between vitaimin D levels and functionality in an elderly population. You can read about this research (as yet, unpublished) here.

What this research found is that in the population studied (men and women with an average age of 75), higher levels of vitamin D were associated with improved physical function. Now, it is possible that this association is due to the fact that more physically able individuals are more likely to, say, go out more and get more sun exposure (and hence have higher levels of vitamin D). However, remember, we do know that vitamin D is important for muscle health and strength, as well as other markers of functionality including balance. The likelihood, therefore, is that higher vitamin D levels can genuinely leading to improved function.

What reminded me of this research was a conversation I overheard yesterday morning while waiting to board a plane. An elderly lady was telling a stranger in the queue how she had got to the airport a little earlier than normal because she normally flew out of a different airport and wanted to give herself a bit more time in an unfamiliar environment. Clearly, this is a lady who does a lot of travel. Interesting, she was travelling alone. Interesting, because she mentioned to her new-found friend that she would be 90 (yes, ninety) on her next birthday.

The reason for me getting a flight yesterday as I wan en route to give a presentation at a business conference regarding how to optimise energy and wellbeing, including in old age. I spent quite a lot of time on the benefits of sunlight and vitamin D in this respect to be sure.

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