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Published on: January 4, 2019
by Cheryl Critchley for University of Melbourne:
A sunny day can make you feel happy, but it may also help retain some of your cognitive powers. New research suggests that vitamin D, often obtained through sun exposure, might be good for our brains, particularly those of women.
The observational study, published in Maturitas, investigated the association between midlife vitamin D and cognition in Australian women over 10 years. It used data involving 252 participants aged 55-67 from the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project.
The study found that sufficient midlife vitamin D levels, which works out to be more than 25 nanomoles per litre (25nmol/L), were associated with improved aspects of executive function in ageing. It also identified a potential midlife window where ideal levels of vitamin D could protect against some types of cognitive decline.
Lead author Dr Alicia Goodwill, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Medicine (Royal Melbourne Hospital), says executive function relates to a number of processes and cognitive control functions.
“These include attention, cognitive inhibition, cognitive flexibility and working memory,” she says. “In this study, the main processes of executive function assessed were cognitive flexibility and attention.”
The researchers found that although there was some evidence to suggest a more pronounced effect of vitamin D status on cognitive processes in women, until now no study had followed this association from midlife to late-life.
“Women (age range 55-67 years) with vitamin D levels above 25nmol/L maintained better executive functioning in late-life, in particular improved cognitive flexibility, attention and psychomotor speed,” it found.
Memory did not appear to be affected by vitamin D levels in this study, but Dr Goodwill says that declines in memory performance often occur later than other cognitive domains, and may not be clinically detectable until women reach their seventies.
She says the findings are another potential piece in a research puzzle that has identified dementia risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, smoking, depression, physical inactivity, and low cognitive stimulation or low education.
“It’s one lifestyle factor in a holistic view of protecting our brains as they age,” she says of vitamin D. “We’re not saying it’s a magic bullet or the magic sunshine. It’s one potential factor.”
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