Vitamin D, a supplement already taken by millions of people — and delivered by sunshine — may help humans live longer, according to a new study by scientists at a Novato research center devoted to aging.
Feeding vitamin D to tiny roundworms engineered so they mimic Alzheimer’s disease, a team at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging found their life span was extended by 33 percent, said Gordon Lithgow, a Buck faculty member and senior author of a paper published last month in Cell Reports, a life sciences journal.
The worms, which “responded dramatically” to vitamin D in their diet, are ideal for longevity studies because they live for about 20 days, he said.
While there’s no guarantee the same results would occur in humans, Lithgow said the study “strongly hints this is something worth looking into.” The aging process in the worms and mammals, including humans, is “thought to be similar,” suggesting vitamin D would have the same effect across the species, he said.
Lithgow’s next step in the laboratory is to see if vitamin D boosts the life spans of mice, and he hopes its effect on human longevity will ultimately be studied. More research “is crying out to be done,” he said.
While more exotic compounds like the diabetes drug Metformin are being studied for their anti-aging properties, Lithgow said vitamin D emerged as a candidate because deficiencies in the vitamin are related to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as breast, colon and prostate cancer, heart disease, obesity and depression.
“Our findings provide a real connection between aging and disease and give clinicians and other researchers an opportunity to look at vitamin D in a much larger context,” he said.
Another advantage is that vitamin D, with global sales expected to hit $2.5 billion in 2020, is cheap, readily available and “we know a lot about it,” Lithgow said. “It’s probably one of the safest things you can think about taking.”
Vitamin D has long been taken by post-menopausal women to prevent osteoporosis and resulting bone fractures, but experts recommend it for older men as well.
Dr. Janice Schwartz, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who has studied vitamin D use in young and old people, said she was not surprised by the Buck study’s findings.
Vitamin D interacts with thousands of genes related to functions throughout the body, including the brain, muscles, organs, blood and bones, she said.
The vitamin is not likely “a magic bullet” for increased longevity, Schwartz said, but it will “for sure keep you healthier as you age.”
People can get sufficient Vitamin D through their diet, and Lithgow noted that milk, mushrooms and salmon are among the foods rich in the vitamin. Sunlight delivers vitamin D, but as aging people spend more time indoors — and others regularly apply sunscreen when they step outside — that source is limited.
Recommended intake of Vitamin D varies, with the Institute of Medicine recognizing only its efficacy for bone health and setting 600 international units (IU) for people up to 70 and 800 IU for those over 70.
Schwartz recommended daily intake of 800 to 1,000 IU for all adults.