Vitamin D gathered from regular exposure to sunshine prevents falls in elderly, say scientists with the Neuroscience Research Australia. It is particularly true of men, they note.
"Sunshine and vitamin D are essential for maintaining our physical strength and cognitive abilities," says Dr Jasmine Menant, from Neuroscience Research Australia.
"Our study shows the importance of ensuring that vitamin D levels are adequate in all older people, particularly as the benefits seem to extend beyond cognition and the musculoskeletal system to our ability to prevent ourselves from falling."
Vitamin D is produced by the skin after exposure to sunlight. With ageing, the skin has less capacity to synthesise vitamin. Also, many older people spend more time indoors due to frailty, immobility or illness and may not be exposed to regular sunshine.
Dr Menant and colleagues investigated the relationship between vitamin D levels and falls in people aged 70-90 years living in the community.
The team found that approximately one third of participants were vitamin D deficient. These people were also weaker, had a slower reaction time, poorer balance and slower gait, and performed worse in cognitive function tests.
In the men, vitamin D insufficiency was associated with an increase in falls.
"Our study suggests that a balance is required between avoiding an increase in the risk of skin cancer by excessive sun exposure and achieving enough sun exposure to maintain adequate vitamin D levels," says Dr Menant.
"In particular, those with lower cognitive and physical performance may benefit from spending more time outdoors or taking vitamin D supplements," she says.
Current recommendations from Osteoporosis Australia and the Cancer Council Australia state that people should expose the face, arms and hands to a few minutes of direct sunlight on either side of the peak UV periods on most days of the week in summer, and in winter for 2-3 hours over a week.
The study was published in the journal Osteoporosis International