A vitamin made when sunlight hits the skin could help slow down the aging of cells and tissues, according to researchers. A King’s College London study of more than 2,000 women found that those whose bodies had more vitamin D experienced fewer aging-related changes in their DNA.
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, stopped short of proving cause and effect.
The genetic material inside every cell has a built-in clock that counts down every time the cell reproduces itself. The shortening of those strands of DNA, called telomeres, provides a way of examining the aging process at a cellular level.
The King’s team looked at white blood cells, which tend to experience faster rates of turnover—and faster shortening of telomeres—when the body’s tissues are suffering from inflammation.
They looked at a total of 2,160 women between the ages of 18 and 79 and took a snapshot measurement of the levels of vitamin D in their blood, comparing it to the length of the telomeres in their white blood cells. After adjusting for the age of the volunteer, they found that women with higher measures of vitamin D were more likely to have longer telomeres in their cells, and vice versa.
Professor Brent Richards, who led the study, said, “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 aging-related diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.”
Another of the study’s authors, Professor Tim Spector, said, “Although it might sound absurd, it’s possible that the same sunshine that may increase our risk of skin cancer may also have a healthy effect on the aging process in general.”
The authors conceded that while the study suggested a link between vitamin D levels and telomere length, it did not provide unequivocal evidence that vitamin D and not some other factor unaccounted for in the research was responsible for the effect.
Professor Thomas von Zglinicki, a leading telomere researcher from the University of Newcastle, said that the study was more evidence that telomere length could be related to aging and age-related diseases. “What we do know is that while telomere length can be used as a biological marker, for an individual, it is not a very precise one. Other studies have found that people who die at the same age can have significant differences in their telomere length—up to 30 times the differences described in this study. We just still don’t know how all the different factors that correlate to telomere length work together.”
Von Zglinicki explained that it was possible that the action at work was not vitamin D delaying the shortening of telomeres but another factor altering the way the vitamin is created and metabolized by the body.
—Dr. Bob Goldman
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