Millions of U.S. children have disturbingly low Vitamin D levels, possibly increasing their risk for bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments, according to two new studies that provide the first national assessment of the crucial nutrient in young Americans.
About 9 percent of those ages 1 through 21–about 7.6 million children, adolescents and young adults–have Vitamin D levels so low they could be considered deficient, while an additional 61 percent–50.8 million–have higher levels, but still low enough to be insufficient, according to the analysis of federal data being released Monday.
Low Vitamin D levels are especially common among girls, adolescents and people with darker skin, according to the analysis of a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 children. For example, 59 percent of African American teenage girls were Vitamin D deficient, Melamed’s study found.
The researchers and others blamed the low levels on a combination of factors, including children spending more time watching television and playing video games instead of going outside, covering up and using sunscreen when they do go outdoors, and drinking more soda and other beverages instead of consuming milk and other foods fortified with Vitamin D.
The analysis and an accompanying federal study also found an association between low Vitamin D levels and increased risk for high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and a condition that increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes, known as the metabolic syndrome.
Taken together, the studies provide new evidence that low Vitamin D levels may be putting a generation of children at increased risk for heart disease and diabetes, two of the nation’s biggest health problems that are also increased by the childhood obesity epidemic.
The findings come as the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine is reviewing the federal government’s official guidelines for recommended daily intake of Vitamin D. A public hearing is scheduled as part of that process at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington on Tuesday.
Those who had low Vitamin D levels were more likely to have lower levels of a hormone associated with healthy bones, higher blood pressure levels and lower levels of “good” cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease, Melamed and her colleagues found.
In the second study, Jared P. Reis of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute analyzed data from about 3,500 adolescents from surveys conducted between 2001 and 2004, and found that compared with those with higher Vitamin D levels, those with the lowest levels had more than double the risk of having high blood pressure and blood sugar and about four times the risk for the metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Some longtime proponents of the health benefits of Vitamin D seized on the findings to urge parents to ask doctors to test their children’s Vitamin D levels, consider increasing supplementation or make sure children spend more time outdoors to boost their levels.