Widespread vitamin D deficiency raises serious concerns


by Catherine Gordon, MD, MSc

Vitamin D deficiency affects people of all ages, including children. Lifestyle factors leading to increased vitamin D deficiency in children and teenagers include less time being spent outdoors, replacement of sodas and other beverages for vitamin D-fortified milk and increased use of sunscreen.

New reports continue to show that vitamin D deficiency is a common problem in infants, children, adolescents and adults. This month’s edition of Pediatrics raised significant concerns, as two large studies of children and adolescents showed that vitamin D deficiency was linked to cardiovascular problems. The investigators showed that low blood levels of vitamin D are strikingly common—61 percent of the youth studied, or 50.8 million U.S. children and adolescents, had vitamin D insufficiency. Low vitamin D levels were also linked to worrisome cardiovascular risk factors, including low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), higher blood pressure and higher blood sugar. Vitamin D deficiency was also associated with elevated parathyroid hormone levels, which may cause long-term bone health problems, such as skeletal breakdown and higher risk for fracture.

These data were covered by all of the major evening news networks, likely because they stem from the well-known, well-designed study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey or NHANES. NHANES is a nationally representative sample of children ages 1 to 21, and the fact that two significant studies have emerged from it raises concern about the health risks facing today’s youth.

What lessons have we learned from this research? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants, children and adolescents receive vitamin D supplementation at a dose of 400 International Units (IU) daily. Teenagers may need a higher daily supplementation dose, but until more information is available, they should receive at least 400 IU daily, in addition to that received in their diets. The hope is that avoidance of vitamin D deficiency will lower a young person’s risk of later developing cardiovascular disease. Only long-term studies will be able to answer that question definitively, but a 400 IU daily vitamin D supplement is safe and sensible practice for the time being.

Catherine Gordon, MD, MSc, is the director of the Bone Health Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Catherine Gordon talks more about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency and what parents can do to protect their children.