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Diet and Nutrition

Vitamin D and heart health: the jury is still out

It is becoming an increasing concern that Americans age 50 and older are at risk of not getting recommended amounts of vitamin D. It is well known that getting enough vitamin D is important for several reasons. Vitamin D helps the body maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus, and helps form and maintain strong bones by promoting calcium absorption. Some research suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in maintaining a healthy immune system and protecting against osteoporosis, but what about heart disease?

In addition to the many known benefits of Vitamin D, a recent study published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, indicates that low blood levels of vitamin D might be a separate risk factor for heart disease. But -- and this is a big but -- even the researchers who conducted the study aren't recommending vitamin D supplements to prevent heart disease.

Still, the findings of this study were intriguing. Researchers examined 1,739 people from the Framingham Heart Study. Their average age was 59 years old, and a bit over half were women. Researchers found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D in their blood at the beginning of the study had twice the risk of a heart attack, heart failure, or stroke over the next five years. When researchers adjusted their findings to control for other risk factors, including high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, they still found that those with lower levels of vitamin D had a 62 percent higher risk.

Even so, scientists are wary of making sweeping recommendations based on these findings. Why? They've been burned before. In the last 10 years or so, similar research indicated other vitamins might play a role in heart health, but those hopes dwindled when the theories were tested under the rigor of large, randomized studies.

Even if vitamin D is not yet recommended to prevent heart disease, it is still important to maintain recommended levels of vitamin D for bone health. Luckily, the body can make its own vitamin D when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays of sunlight. But the required 10 to 15 minutes of exposure twice a week can be hard to get during the winter. And the older you get, the harder it is for your body to make vitamin D. So, recommendations for vitamin D consumption increase with age, from 200 International Units (IUs) per day up to age 50, to 400 IUs per day from 51 to 70 years, and 600 IUs per day for people 71 and older.

Good sources of vitamin D include:

This article originally appeared in Chow Line (01/25/08), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2008.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 26, 2008

Anne  Smith, PhD, RD, MS Anne Smith, PhD, RD, MS
Professor Emeritus of Human Nutrition
College of Education and Human Ecology
The Ohio State University