2 or 3 weeks back, I was having a conversation with my 79-year-old mother regarding her mobility. She is, ordinarily, a bit of a force of nature, with abundant energy and still fending entirely for herself (with the help of my father) in all aspects of her life. In recent years, though, she has found that she ‘seizes up’ if she has been immobile for a while. This can make it difficult for her to, say, get up the stairs at the end of the evening or get out of the car after a long-ish car journey.
She’s 79, so maybe we should expect this sort of thing. But I wondered if, possibly, she was low in vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can cause generalized aches and pains. Plus, low levels of vitamin D have been linked with reduced mobility in the elderly . This evidence, however, is ‘epidemiological’ in nature, and does not prove vitamin D deficiency causes immobility. It might be that those who are immobile go out less and are less likely to make adequate vitamin D through sunlight exposure.
But the other thought I had running around in my head as we spoke is that I know my mother has never been a fan of the sun. Despite being brought up on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean sea, my mother has never taken to the sun and, as long as I can remember, has done her best to keep out of it (I, on the other hand, am at the other end of the spectrum).
So, we decided to get her vitamin D levels checked, and they came back as 28 nmol/l (11.2 ng/ml). Bear in mind, now, that I personally like levels to be at around the 125 nmol/l (50 ng/ml) mark. Also, we’re at a time of year here in the UK when vitamin D levels are likely to drift slowly downwards for some time.
My mother started on vitamin D right away. I suggested a dose of 20,000 IU per day to ‘get her going’. About 10 days later I got a text sent by my father telling me that my mother was feeling much better. Speaking to her later, she told me that she was feeling much ‘lighter’ and was in much less discomfort. The ‘seizing up’ had eased off considerably. Realising she’s left her handbag unstairs is no longer a drama for her, either.
Of course it’s entirely possible that my mother’s experience was entirely a placebo response. If it was (and we will never know) then she doesn’t care (and neither do I). However, one thing that counts against this was the fact that the improvement in her symptoms was quite delayed (she took 10 days to feel confident enough to report genuine improvement).
I suspect if we looked we would see a sea of vitamin D deficiency in the elderly, particularly those who are largely housebound or residing in institutions. You could see how this might set up a vicious cycle, perhaps, of worsening vitamin D deficiency and immobility. It also got me wondering if the winter months might present a particularly challenge to some people as declining vitamin D translate into more aches and pains. I think there’s a general assumption that the winter can affect these symptoms through changes in temperature and perhaps humidity. But might the real problem for some people be rooting in a lack of vitamin D-generating light?
1. Houston DK, et al. Low 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Predicts the Onset of Mobility Limitation and Disability in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: The Health ABC Study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2012 May 9. [Epub ahead of print]