Researchers tie low vitamin D to heart disease
Low levels of vitamin D, a chronic problem for many people in northern latitudes areas such as Wisconsin and Washington, were associated...
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — Low levels of vitamin D, a chronic problem for many people in northern latitudes areas such as Wisconsin and Washington, were associated with substantially higher rates of heart disease and stroke, according to a new study.
In one of the strongest studies to date linking the vitamin to cardiovascular disease, researchers followed 1,739 members of the Framingham Offspring Study for more than five years.
They found the rate of cardiovascular disease events such as heart attacks, strokes and heart failure were from 53 percent to 80 percent higher in people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood.
"This is a stunning study," said John Whitcomb, medical director of the Aurora Sinai Wellness Institute in Milwaukee. He was not involved in the study.
Whitcomb said the study bolsters the idea that people living in northern-latitude areas should be supplementing their diet with vitamin D pills from October through March.
Whitcomb noted that other than eating lots of fatty fish, it is nearly impossible to maintain optimal vitamin D levels through diet alone. Sun exposure and taking vitamin D supplements are the only proven methods, he said.
"We were designed to live in sunshine," Whitcomb said. "Every year we go through this five-month stress test."
Denise Teves, an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, said cells that line the arteries of the heart have vitamin D receptors. Low levels of vitamin D can lead to a proliferation of smooth muscle cells in those blood vessels, which, in turn, can lead to blockages and stiffness in arteries.
In addition, more vitamin D can lead to less inflammation in arteries. It also has been linked to reduced blood pressure.
Teves said that while the current recommendation for adults is to get about 400 international units of vitamin D a day, an optimal level might be from 800 to 2,000 international units.
However, other vitamins have shown initial promise in preventing cardiovascular disease only to fizzle out when randomized clinical trials were done, said Matthew Wolff, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. Neither he nor Teves was involved in the study.
Researchers say there may be one significant difference between vitamin D and vitamins such as C and E and folic acid, which have failed to show a benefit in reducing cardiovascular disease risk in randomized trials.
For much of history, humans lived near the equator and were exposed to higher amounts of ultraviolet light, resulting in higher levels of vitamin D in their bodies, said Thomas Wang, lead author of the cardiovascular-risk and vitamin D study, which was published online Monday in the journal Circulation.
"The levels we see today in developed countries are relatively unusual, especially from an evolutionary standpoint," said Wang, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
One-third to one-half of otherwise healthy, middle-age-to-older adults have low levels of vitamin D in the United States, the study says.
The study found a significant reduction in cardiovascular-disease risk in people who had more than 15 nanograms per milliliter of 25-dihydroxyvitamin D — the form of vitamin D stored in blood — compared with those who had less than that.
Wang said his study doesn't prove that taking vitamin supplements reduces heart attacks and strokes. That can only be done with a large clinical trial in which vitamin D is compared with a placebo.
However, until such studies are done, there is little risk for adults who take up to 2,000 international units a day, he said.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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