General medicine

Vitamin D deficiency leaves millions at risk of numerous diseases and disorders

19 July 2007

Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most commonly unrecognized and easily preventable medical conditions, according to Dr Michael F. Holick in a review article published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The body produces vitamin D by exposure to sunlight. This means that sensible sun exposure will be beneficial to millions.

The article explores the nature of vitamin D deficiency and concludes it to be one of the most commonly unrecognized medical conditions, and leaves millions at risk of developing not only osteoporosis and fractures but also numerous serious and often fatal diseases, including several common cancers, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases and heart disease.

Dr. Holick estimates that there are over one billion people worldwide at risk for vitamin D deficiency, with 30-50% of children and adults in the United States at high risk for this potentially life threatening condition.

According to Holick, the effects of this condition can be both immediate and far-reaching for women and children. For example, pregnant women, even when taking a prenatal vitamin, are still at high risk for preeclampsia, a condition characterized by hypertension, fluid retention and protein loss in the urine.

Low levels of calcium and vitamin D in utero and in childhood may prevent the maximum deposition of calcium in the skeleton. Vitamin D deficiency in early life may increase the risk of developing serious chronic diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

In adults, recent evidence has shown that vitamin D deficiency can put an individual at risk for developing a variety of deadly cancers. Holick points to prospective and retrospective studies indicating that vitamin D deficiency is associated with a 30-50% increased risk of colon, prostate and breast cancer along with higher mortality among those diagnosed with these cancers, especially darker skin individuals who have the highest incidence of vitamin D deficiency in the US.

Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to an increased risk of infectious diseases including tuberculosis and influenza as well as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

"Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic in this country," stated Dr. Holick. "Sensible sun exposure and the use of supplements are the best ways to address this easily preventable condition," he added.

Dr. Michael F. Holick is a Professor of Medicine, Physiology and Biophysics at Boston University. He is internationally recognized for his expertise and contributions to the fields of vitamin D, calcium, bone and the biologic effects of light in dermatology, endocrinology, and medicine.

To see this article as it appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, please visit Dr. Holick's website at

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