Vitamin D has long been recommended for older women as a way of combating the reduction in muscle mass that accompanies aging.
Now, a new study done in Brazil offers evidence that taking vitamin D can significantly increase muscle strength and reduce the loss of muscle mass in women more than a decade after menopause.
The study results will be presented at the annual meeting of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), which opens today in Las Vegas.
The researchers found at the end of the nine-month, double-blind study that the women who received the vitamin supplements showed an increase of more than 25 percent in muscle strength.
Those in the control group, who received a placebo, lost an average of 6.8 percent of muscle mass. The women in that group were also nearly twice as likely to fall.
If the results hold up, it means in effect that even women who are looking at menopause in the rearview mirror can still benefit from taking vitamin D.
“The aim of our study was to prove the preventive effect of the use of vitamin D for musculoskeletal complications in younger postmenopausal women,” Dr. Luciana Cangussu told Healthline.
She is one of the lead authors of the study from the Botucatu Medical School at Sao Paulo State University.
“In fact, this result was part of our hypothesis, but of course this amount of strength gain was above our expectations,” she added.
Association Encouraged by Study
The study results were welcomed by NAMS as well.
According to Dr. Wulf H. Utian, Ph.D. and executive director of NAMS, “This very interesting study attempted to determine whether vitamin D administration to women with a history of falls after menopause had a muscle-sparing and strengthening effect.
“The value of this would be fewer falls through enhancement of muscle strength,” he explained to Healthline. “This is an extremely important question because falls in older women are associated with bone fractures and these in turn carry a higher likelihood of earlier death.”
Utian said the findings merit further research.
"While this study is unlikely to decide the debate over vitamin D, it provides further evidence to support the use of vitamin D supplements by postmenopausal women in an effort to reduce frailty and an increased risk of falling,” Utian said in a press release.
In their study, the researchers measured muscle mass by total-body DXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) and muscle strength by hand grip and chair-raising test.
The mean age in the test group was 58.8 years; in the placebo group, it was 59.3 years.
“We concluded that the supplementation of vitamin D alone provided significant protection against the occurrence of sarcopenia, which is a degenerative loss of skeletal muscle,” Cangussu stated in a press release.
Why Vitamin D Is Important
Hypovitaminosis D is common in postmenopausal women worldwide. It creates muscle weakness and a greater likelihood of falls.
Kathleen Cody, executive director of American Bone Health, notes the importance of vitamin D for bone density.
“It’s been demonstrated that vitamin D also helps with absorption of calcium, which is important for bone health,” she said in an interview.
Her organization stresses exercise to improve strength and balance.
Still, older people’s bodies do not process vitamin D as efficiently as younger ones, she said.
“So many people are insufficient or deficient” when it comes to vitamin D, Cody said. She urged women to talk to their doctors and get a blood test to test for vitamin D levels.
Her thoughts are echoed by Sherri R. Betz, who chairs the bone health special interest group of the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy. She is also the owner of TheraPilates Physical Therapy Clinic in Santa Cruz, California.
She explained that the body has two types of muscle fibers: slow and fast.
“Slow fibers are in the deep muscle. They are what hold us upright all day,” she said.
You need fast fibers when the body needs to react quickly. Vitamin D binds to those fast fibers. That cuts down on falls.
“To prevent a fall, you need to react quickly,” Betz said in an interview.
The new study’s conclusions will likely translate into even stronger recommendations for patients.
“Our group is concerned about exercising to add strength and to prevent falls, and vitamin D has been touted for years as great for preventing falls,” she said.