US children low in vitamin D

Seven out of ten U.S. children have low levels of vitamin D, raising their risk of bone and heart disease, according to a study of over 6,000 children by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

The striking findings suggest that vitamin D deficiency could place millions of children at risk for high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. The study is published today in the online version of Pediatrics.

Vitamin D deficiency was thought to be relatively rare in the U.S. However, recent studies have documented this growing problem in adults. With cases of rickets (a bone disease in infants caused by low vitamin D levels) on the rise, it became clear that many children were also not getting enough of this essential vitamin, which is needed for healthy bone growth, among other biological processes.

“Several small studies had found a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in specific populations of children, but no one had examined this issue nationwide,” says study leader Michal L. Melamed, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and of epidemiology & population health at Einstein. Dr. Melamed has published extensively on the importance of vitamin D.

To learn more about the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency (defined as less than 15 ng/mL of blood) and vitamin D insufficiency (15 to 29 ng/mL), the researchers analyzed data on more than 6,000 children, ages one to 21, collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001-2004.

The researchers found that 9 percent of the study sample, equivalent to 7.6 million children across the U.S., was vitamin D deficient, while another 61 percent, or 50.8 million, was vitamin D insufficient. Low vitamin D levels were especially common in children who were older, female, African-American, Mexican-American, obese, drank milk less than once a week, or spent more than four hours a day watching TV, playing videogames, or using computers.

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The researchers also found that low levels of vitamin D deficiency were associated with higher parathyroid hormone levels, a marker of bone health, higher systolic blood pressure, and lower serum calcium and HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which are key risk factors for heart disease.

Dr. Melamed recommends that children should consume more foods rich in vitamin D, such as milk and fish. “But it’s very hard to get enough vitamin D from dietary sources alone,” she says. Vitamin D supplementation can help. In the study, children who took vitamin D supplements (400 IU/day) were less likely to be deficient in the vitamin. However, only four percent of the study population actually used supplements. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently updated its vitamin D guidelines, now recommends that infants, children, and teens should take 400 IU per day in supplement form.

As for parents, says Dr. Melamed, “It would good for them to turn off the TV and send their kids outside. Just 15 to 20 minutes a day should be enough. And unless they burn easily, don’t put sunscreen on them until they’ve been out in the sun for 10 minutes, so they get the good stuff but not sun damage.”

Source: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, USA

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