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Vitamin D can help ward off dementia, says study on Asian population

SINGAPORE — Getting out in the sun for a healthy dose of Vitamin D is not just good for building strong bones but also protects against developing dementia in old age, according to the first large-scale study on the Asian population that uncovered a strong correlation between Vitamin D and cognitive health.

People relaxing at East Coast Park. TODAY file photo

People relaxing at East Coast Park. TODAY file photo

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SINGAPORE — Getting out in the sun for a healthy dose of Vitamin D is not just good for building strong bones but also protects against developing dementia in old age, according to the first large-scale study on the Asian population that uncovered a strong correlation between Vitamin D and cognitive health.

Previous studies have been done on the Western population but this is the first to focus on Asians, said lead researcher Professor David Matchar, who is also the director of health services and systems research at Duke-NUS Medical School.

The two-year study tracked about 1,200 elderly Chinese above 60 years old in China, who were not known to have any cognitive impairments when they were recruited for the exercise in 2012.

They also had their blood samples taken to establish a baseline of Vitamin D levels in their body.

In 2014, the elderly participants were assessed again to measure deterioration in their cognitive function and whether they presented signs consistent with dementia.

Among the cohort, the bottom 25 per cent in terms of lowest Vitamin D levels were about twice as likely to have reduced cognitive function over time compared to the top 25 per cent.

In terms of developing cognitive impairments, those with lower Vitamin D levels were also almost three times more at risk.

Vitamin D, usually known as the “sunshine vitamin”, is produced in the body naturally when it is exposed to sunlight and promotes the absorption of calcium and phosphorous for healthy bones and teeth, as well as facilitate the normal functioning of the immune system.

Prof Matchar explained that the original intent of the research was to study the oldest of the old in Singapore, given that there are about 40,000 elderly Singaporeans with cognitive impairments and this number is expected to double by 2030 as the population ages.

Without a large enough group of participants in Singapore, the researchers recruited participants from the Chinese Longitudinal Health Longevity Survey originally done by Duke University, as well as Peking University and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in China.

However, Prof Matchar stressed that the findings were still applicable to the local Chinese population in Singapore as evidence shows that Asian populations generally have relatively low Vitamin D levels compared to Caucasians.

“In Asian populations, we tend to see a lot less milk consumption, (where) milk generally has Vitamin D supplementation ... In Singapore in particular, people tend to stay out of the sun and stay indoors in air-conditioning,” he said.

“I think what we were concerned about is whether there is any genetic differences between ethnically Chinese people compared with Caucasians and other groups that have already been studied … But the answer was no, this is a phenomenon that equally affects ethnically Chinese as other populations we’ve discovered,” he added.

While there have yet to be conclusive intervention studies to show Vitamin D supplementation can reduce the onset of dementia, Prof Matchar still recommended healthy levels of Vitamin D for overall well-being, including bone health.

He suggested being out in the sun, preferably at noon, for about 15 minutes for light-skinned people, and slightly longer for people with darker skin, which absorbs less ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Sun that is directly overhead provides the best exposure to UVB rays for forming of Vitamin D.

Sun exposure through window glass is also inadequate as most windows block UV radiation.

Alternatively, Vitamin D supplements can also be taken to reach the general recommended daily intake of Vitamin D, which is about 600 international units for adults and 800 for the elderly above 70 years old, Prof Matchar said.

While the next step would be to conduct more sophisticated studies on the effect of Vitamin D supplementation, he added that from a policy perspective, the findings should be enough to raise awareness of Vitamin D deficiency as a problem, especially among the elderly.

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