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Information on the latest vitamin D news and research.

Find out more information on deficiency, supplementation, sun exposure, and how vitamin D relates to your health.

Sunshine for the elderly: To expose or not to expose?

In a provocative paper, Professor Hartmut Glossmann of the University of Innsbruck in Austria recommends that the elderly expose themselves to moderate regular sun exposure as often as possible during seasons when the sun is high in the sky.

Glossmann H.  Vitamin D, UV, and skin cancer in the elderly: to expose or not to expose? Gerontology. 2011;57(4):350-3. Epub 2010 Dec 22. Review.

He bases his recommendation on numerous studies showing sun exposure extends life and helps prevent numerous diseases. In the winter and early spring, he recommends vitamin D supplementation at more northern latitudes. He reports that sunshine is associated with less “multiple sclerosis, bronchial asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, colon cancer, hypertension, type 1 and 2 diabetes, cardiovascular events, frailty, muscle weakness, and pelvic floor disease, anemia in kidney disease, depression and more.”

He recommends the elderly avoid sunburns, cover their head and face with a brimmed hat, applying sunscreen to their face and hands but otherwise expose as much skin as possible to sunlight.

He dismisses the risk of malignant melanoma, pointing out that, “The multiple melanoma risk increases with intermittent sun exposure but is surprisingly largely uninfluenced by latitude or ambient UV-B radiation,” adding “There is no evidence that the aging population is in danger of malignant melanoma from moderate (regular) sun exposure or that sunscreen protects against malignant melanoma.”

He points out that the people from Greece, Italy, and Spain disappear to the beach every August but the incidence of malignant melanoma in those countries is “several fold lower than in (cloudy) Britain.” He also points out the “melanoma epidemic” is a false epidemic as the death rate from melanoma has not changed in 30 years and that those with higher vitamin D levels have better prognosis if they do contract it.

Other things Professor Glossmann highlights:

  • Melanoma is associated with lower incidence of internal cancers such as lung cancer.
  • “Non melanoma skin cancer’s mortality is – to a large extent – due to cancers ‘where the sun does not shine,’ especially in women, namely the genitals, indicating a possible involvement of the papilloma virus.”
  • If you are diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma of the skin, “you are going to live longer, by about 9%”

Like another recent author, he feels that you cannot replace UV radiation with a pill, saying “UV irradiance can locally increase a perplexing variety of hormones, peptides, and cytokines . . . indicating that there are many activities of natural sunlight extending beyond vitamin D.”

This is why I sunbath in the summer and use a UVB or low pressure full-spectrum sunlight-like sunbeds in the winter, only supplementing on the days I do neither. I do not fear sunburn with moderate exposure as my 25(OH)D is greater than 50 ng/ml, which makes the skin less sensitive to UV radiation from either the sun or low pressure sunbeds.

  About: John Cannell, MD

Dr. John Cannell is founder of the Vitamin D Council. He has written many peer-reviewed papers on vitamin D and speaks frequently across the United States on the subject. Dr. Cannell holds an M.D. and has served the medical field as a general practitioner, emergency physician, and psychiatrist.

10 Responses to Sunshine for the elderly: To expose or not to expose?

  1. Rebecca Oshiro says:

    The nitric oxide and beta-endorphin release upon exposure to UV radiation are yet two more benefits that can’t be found in a pill.

  2. k2pdj@earthlink.net says:

    My understanding is that as you age your ability to make vitamin D in the skin is drastically reduced. I would appreciate some more data on this. I am 72.

  3. joecarraro@gmail.com says:

    Seniors, particularly those living in urban areas, are unlikely to go out for a walk under the sun with body skin exposed. Furthermore, it is probable that their skin cannot process the Sun Rays as younger skins. Seniors probably also have a decreased capacity to metabolise the oral Vitamin D3 pills. All these factors taken into consideration, I wonder what would be the normal dose of daily oral Vitamin D that schould recommended for seniors.

  4. The elderly can still make plenty of vitamin D. I am 64 and know that for a fact. Different studies show different rates of decline with age but it is still substantial at age 80. I always recommend supplements before sun exposure so that the skin is protected by a high 25(OH)D level. For example, the elderly should take 5,000 IU/day for several months before regular, full body, sun exposure. Or 10,000 IU/day for a month before such sun exposure.

  5. togeorge41934@hotmail.com says:

    I am 78 years old. Although my skin seems not produce much vitamin D any more, I live in Portland OR, and after a winter/spring of gloom, literally hunger for warm sunlight. Now that “summer” is here, I expose myself at poolside as often as possible, developing a tan. I cut back to 5,000 units of D3 during summer sun, otherwise I take 10,000 units daily. I test about every two months, and my levels have stabilized at around 60-70 25(OH)D level. There is definitely more to the sun than just vitamin D production. I happen to think that indirect ultraviolet rays entering the retina are also important (see “Health and Light” – Dr. John Nash Ott). I hear the message about “low pressure” tanning beds, but the tanning salons in Portland all tout “high pressure” beds for some reason.

  6. Studies have shown a linear decrease in vitamin D from the sun with age.
    At least a 2X reduction by age 70.
    Here is the linear graph: http://www.vitamindwiki.com/tiki-index.php?page_id=2969
    Included is a reference to the many methods to increase the vitamin D from the sun

  7. Mark Haymond says:

    Dr Cannell, In your comment above you say that the skin is protected by a high 25 (OH)D level. I have never read any explanation about how Vitamin D “protects” the skin and how taking Vitamin D before sun exposure helps protect the skin. Please explain further.

  8. The protection a high 25 (OH)D affords the skin is based on the fact the skin makes large amounts of 1,25 which is very effective in protecting the skin from UV radiation.

    There are no direct studies proving my theory but anyone can easily find out by getting their level up to 60-70 and going into the sun. You will not be as sun sensitive.

  9. k2pdj@earthlink.net says:

    One particular website states that washing with soap decreases absorption of vitamin D. According to the website, vitamin D is in the oil of the skin,after sun exposure, and takes 48 hours to be absorbed. If soap is used to wash the skin during this time the oil and vitamin D are removed. Can you confirm this?

    • Brant Cebulla says:

      Researchers measured vitamin D levels in a small pool of Hawaiians who reportedly got lots of sun exposure. They found that their levels were a little below expectations, which has led some people to speculate that maybe washing and using soap washes away some vitamin D that was produced in the skin. This has never been studied, so this is speculative at the moment.

      It does take about 24-48 hours for your body to convert all of its vitamin D it produced in the skin to 25OHD.