Whether it’s forgetting where you left your car keys, recognizing a neighbor but not being able to immediately recall his name, or having trouble finding your car at a shopping mall, it’s not unusual to experience some kind of memory loss, especially as you age.
According to this article from WebMD, one in nine Americans aged 45 or older reported memory loss or some other cognitive dysfunction, especially those aged 75 or older, based on a 2018 government report.
But that doesn’t mean it’s normal or that you should ignore the signs. In fact, the lead researcher for the report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is quoted by WebMD as advising that “symptoms of confusion and memory loss are not a normal part of aging.”
In reality, issues of memory loss or cognitive decline can be indicators of a more serious problem, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
The most recent statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association found that more than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, that statistic is expected to more than double. The World Health Organization says that more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, with nearly 10 million new cases reported annually.
And it’s not just the diagnosed patients and their families who suffer. It’s a societal economic burden as well. In 2021, Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost America $355 billion. Without a cure, it’s projected that these costs could rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050. In 2019, the global societal cost of dementia was $1.3 trillion, with predictions that by 2030 these costs will exceed $2.8 trillion.
But the good news is that some memory problems may be reversible or even preventable. In the aforementioned WebMD article, a (now former) public policy expert at the Alzheimer’s Association stressed that many people who experience memory lapses will not go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. But those signs should be taken seriously. The first step is to have frank discussions with your doctor.
Just like with many other serious health conditions, adopting a healthy lifestyle, which includes attention—and action—to diet and exercise, among other things, is believed to help slow the progression of dementia.
The Role of Vitamin D in the Brain
You may be wondering when we were going to get to this part: can vitamin D deficiency cause memory loss? Quite possibly. Low vitamin D levels have been identified as risk factors for many health issues, including brain-related concerns such as memory decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
But before we all jump to conclusions that vitamin D alone will save us from brain function decline, it’s important to point out that even the researchers who found links to low vitamin D levels and problems with brain health, advise there is still more research to be done.
One thing to consider is that many (if not all) of the studies that suggest a benefit for vitamin D in helping prevent memory loss and other brain function problems, are observational in nature. What this means is that while vitamin D may well be beneficial in this area, observational studies by nature do not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between the agent studied and the results.
Let’s take a step back and start by quickly examining the impact of vitamin D on the brain and its functions. As a neuroprotector, vitamin D can help prevent nerve damage and also slow erosion of the central nervous system. The vitamin—which technically is a steroid hormone (but that’s for another day, another blog)—also helps regulate genes that are crucial for brain function.
And let’s take a step back from memory loss for a minute as studies have discovered that low vitamin D levels may be associated with other brain conditions too.
For example, Medical News Today reported on one such study that reinforced the potential link between vitamin D and brain health, specifically schizophrenia, a chronic brain disorder. That study found that babies with low vitamin D levels at birth were at greater risk of developing schizophrenia in later life.
In this article, Medical News Today also pointed to other studies that linked low vitamin D levels to a decrease in brain function. For example, one of these studies found that those who survived sudden cardiac arrest were less likely to recover brain function if their vitamin D levels were low.
So, Is Vitamin D Good for Memory?
What we know so far is that the lack of vitamin D is likely bad for memory.
When it comes specifically to memory loss (as well as cognitive decline, which itself is intertwined with memory loss) there are studies that looked at low vitamin D status and how it may be associated with those troubling issues.
According to this article in Reuters Health, a study published in JAMA Neurology linked low vitamin D levels with faster memory loss in an older population. Among the concerning findings from the researchers at the University of California, Davis: low vitamin D levels were associated with semantic memory difficulties, that type of long-term memory function involving the capacity to recall numbers, words, concepts, all of which are necessary to communicate.
The study population included more than 300 participants, with the average age 76 years old. Sixty percent had low vitamin D status, including more than one quarter of those with actual vitamin D deficiency. (Levels below 12 ng/mL are considered deficient.)
The link between low vitamin D and cognitive impairment did not change, even with the researchers accounting for other cognitive risk factors, such as obesity, vascular disease and a gene variant associated with risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
In another study, this one reported on by Yahoo! News, researchers discovered that vitamin D deficiency presents a much higher risk for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
These findings were based on results in a population of 1,658 healthy adults at baseline, aged 65 or older, studied over a six-year period. Over the course of the study, 171 participants and 102 developed dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively.
Published in Neurology, the research team associated those who were severely deficient in vitamin D as twice as likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s as those who got a sufficient amount of the sunshine vitamin.
The article further noted that for those who were moderately deficient in vitamin D, there was a 53% increased risk of developing any kind of dementia. That risk increased to 125% in those who were severely deficient.
And the risk was similar when it came to Alzheimer’s disease. The moderately deficient were 69% more likely to develop the disease, while the risks for the severely deficient were 122%.
Does Vitamin D Improve Memory?
So, we’ve talked about studies that have found an association between low vitamin D levels and memory loss, cognitive function, dementia and other brain health problems. In addition, previous posts on this blog have addressed other health issues related to low vitamin D status.
Questions to be considered are whether optimal—or even sufficient—levels of vitamin D could not only reduce your risk for memory loss, cognitive decline and related brain conditions, but whether or not there is a right amount of vitamin D that would actually improve your memory and cognitive function.
For many experts, the jury is still out. Take, for example, this post on the Mayo Clinic website that says it’s too early to recommend increasing your daily dose of vitamin D as a means to prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t disagree—if that’s your main expectation for the vitamin.
But there are two pieces of good news. First, the scientific community is paying attention to the studies that already exist on this topic and scientists are urging that the research continue to answer these kinds of questions.
Second, we do agree with that Mayo Clinic author who also reminds us that vitamin D is vital to bone metabolism, calcium absorption and other metabolic processes in the body.
In other words, while we are waiting for more research, there are already many reasons to make sure your vitamin D status is, at the very least, adequate or sufficient.
Here’s a reality check about vitamin D sufficiency. Despite the fact that vitamin D is one of the most studied nutrients to date, global health leaders claim that vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide health epidemic, with 1 billion people across the globe being vitamin D deficient or insufficient.
At the very least, find out where your vitamin D levels fall. Taking a blood test—by asking your doctor or learning more about the OmegaQuant at-home test—is a smart start. There’s enough research now to warrant that simple step.