WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Vitamin D supplements may not only help older women avoid weaker bones but may help prevent heart disease, doctors reported on Tuesday.
Women over the age of 65 who took vitamin D had nearly one-third less risk of dying from heart disease as women who did not take the supplements, the researchers told a meeting in Hawaii of the American Heart Association.
While it is too soon to advise women to start taking vitamin D supplements, the researchers say their findings merit further study.
Dr. Paul Varosy and colleagues at the University of California San Francisco followed 9,704 women aged 65 and older who were taking part in an osteoporosis study.
Half the women said they were taking vitamin D supplements — which are often used, with calcium, to prevent osteoporosis.
After an average of about 11 years, 420 of the women died of coronary heart disease. Women who took extra vitamin D supplements were 31 percent less likely to have died of heart disease than those who did not take the supplements, Varosy said.
The use of calcium supplements did not affect death rates. Varosy said his team took into consideration other risk factors for heart disease such as education, exercise and smoking.
Vitamin D, which the body makes naturally when the skin is exposed to sunlight, regulates the use and absorption of calcium. Some foods are supplemented with vitamin D.
Varosy said it would make sense that vitamin D may be associated with heart disease, as so-called hardening of the arteries can progress from a buildup of fat in the blood vessels to calcification of that buildup.
“A lot of evidence suggests that calcification in the arteries is very similar to the calcification process that occurs in bone,” Varosy said in a statement.
“In fact, women with osteoporosis tend to have more calcium in the walls of their arteries than women with normal bones,” he added.
“There is still no clear explanation for the associations, but it is a promising area of research. It is possible that the same hormonal processes that lead to calcium loss from bones may somehow lead to accumulation of calcium in atherosclerotic plaques. But again, the nature of the mechanism is unclear.”
He said more study was needed to see if it was the vitamin D or something else in multivitamins that caused the effect. It was also important to test the idea in men, Varosy said.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States and other industrialized countries. The American Heart Association does not recommend the use of vitamin supplements to prevent heart disease but, rather, regular exercise and a diet based on plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.