Aging isn’t something anyone can avoid, but there is an increasing body of research showing us that there are things you can do, today, to help keep your mind sharp and your body healthy as you get older. But how to improve your brain?

The latest bit of evidence on vitamins, D in this case, and health comes from a population based study of over 3,100 European men (aged 40-79) that found the subjects with high vitamin D levels did better on both memory and information processing tests than subjects with lower levels.

Whether this vital, though under appreciated nutrient protects the brain cells themselves or key signaling pathways within the brain isn’t clear, but the effect is certainly measurable.

The study, a joint effort between University of Manchester experts and colleagues from other European centers, appears in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

This latest work follows research that made news this past January suggesting high levels of vitamin D can help prevent the mental decline of the aging brain.

Dr. Iain Lang, a member of the UK and U.S. team who carried out the earlier work, agrees that this latest study adds to the evidence that vitamin D might be very good for the brain.

The study included men from 8 countries across Europe as part of the European Male Ageing Study (EMAS), and involved assessing mental agility of the subjects using three different standardized tests of cognition.

Samples of blood were taken to measure vitamin D levels. Assessments also involved how physically active the men were, how they functioned in daily life and reports on mood or depression.

In the end, the men with highest vitamin D levels did best on the tests and their cognitive performance was consistently better than those with the lowest levels.

One surprise was that the difference appeared most strikingly in subjects over 60 years old.

Why might this be?

The researchers aren’t sure, but suggest the vitamin might trigger an increase in protective hormones in the brain, though at present only animal studies back this theory

Other evidence suggests that vitamin D may work to calm down an over active immune system or perhaps boost levels of antioxidants that work to detoxify the brain.

So while experts can’t explain precisely how vitamin D works, they remain confident that it does indeed have an impact on age related cognitive function.

As a fat-soluble nutrient, vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods such as oily fish (salmon, tuna and mackerel), beef liver, fish liver oils, cheese and eggs. Fortified foods are also available, foods like milk, ready to eat cereals, some brands of orange juice, yogurt, margarine and fruit juices.

Even so, eating a diet with enough of this nutrient isn’t as easy as you might think, and is the reason supplements have become so popular. You’ll want to talk to your own doctor, to discuss your unique situation, before you start taking any supplement.

At present, the recommended intake of vitamin D is 400-600 IU a day for those aged over 51, though at least 1000 IU per day is considered by many to be a more appropriate level for older adults.

In 2008 the American Academy of Pediatrics made vitamin D intake recommendations that were double the previous dose, the ones most of us grew up on.

And while sunlight is also a natural source of this important vitamin, as we age, our skin is less able to absorb vitamin D from the sun, so older people depend more on food sources (or supplements) for this key nutrient. What’s more, sunscreens of SPF 15 or higher, popular in our fight against skin cancer, are known to block almost all vitamin D synthesis by the skin. Being obese or overweight also makes your body less able to make vitamin D while you’re out in the sun.

Estimates of vitamin D deficiency suggest that 50% of adults and children in the United States aren’t getting enough.

And seeing that vitamin D is increasingly being linked to health benefits beyond the brain, things like reducing arthritis, osteoporotic fractures, not to mention heart disease and even some cancers, there’s never been a better time to make sure you’re getting enough.

Next just head on over to the Daily Health Bulletin for more hints and tips on how to improve your brain power naturally, plus get 5 free fantastic health reports.

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