Scientists hail the ‘sunshine vitamin’

Scientists from King’s College London have found that vitamin D may be instrumental in protecting us against certain diseases, as well as helping to slow down the ageing process.

In an extensive study, the results of which will be published today in the November issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers studied 2,160 women who were aged between 18 and 79 years. The scientists looked at the women’s telomeres, which are part of our DNA. Telomeres are a biological marker of ageing, and, as people age their telomeres get shorter. In this study, the researchers found that the women with high levels of vitamin D had longer telomeres, which is a sign of being biologically younger and also of being healthier.

As people age, their telomeres get shorter and they also become more susceptible to certain illnesses which are associated with ageing. This study suggests that vitamin D may help to slow down the process of DNA aging, and, as a result, may slow down the whole aging process.

Lead researcher, Dr Brent Richards, from King’s College London says: ‘These results are exciting because they demonstrate for the first time that people who have higher levels of vitamin D may age more slowly than people with lower levels of vitamin D. This could help to explain how vitamin D has a protective effect on many ageing related diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Further studies are required to confirm these findings.’

Vitamin D has a number of important functions. Other studies, such as a recent paper published in Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that it plays a key role in protecting against cancer, heart disease and cancer. It is often called the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it is made by the action of sunlight on the skin, which accounts for 90 per cent of the body’s supply. Lower levels of the vitamin can also be obtained through the diet, from foods such as fish, eggs and fortified milk and breakfast cereals.

Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risks of certain illnesses and it is thought that it helps to prevent inflammation. Therefore those with high levels are thought to be at a lower risk of developing multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

Professor Tim Spector, who is Head of the Twin Research Unit at King’s College London, and a co-author on the study, comments: ‘Although it might sound absurd, it’s possible that the same sunshine which may increase our risk of skin cancer may also have a healthy effect on the ageing process in general.’

Notes to editors

The paper, Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women, will be published in the November 2007 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Definition of DNA: It is the material inside the nucleus of cells that carries genetic information. The scientific name for DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid.

King’s College London

King’s College London is the fourth oldest university in England with more than 13,700 undergraduates and nearly 5,600 graduate students in nine schools of study based at five London campuses. It is a member of the Russell Group: a coalition of the UK’s major research-based universities. The College has had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level, and it has recently received an excellent result in its audit by the Quality Assurance Agency.

King’s has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, international relations, medicine, nursing and the sciences, and has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe and is home to five Medical Research Council Centres – more than any other university.

King’s is in the top group of UK universities for research earnings, with income from grants and contracts of more than £110 million, and has an annual income of more than £387 million.

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