Most U.S. Kids Have Too-Low Vitamin D Levels

Kids' Low D Means Heart Risk, Rickets, Weak Bones

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Aug. 3, 2009 -- Seven out of 10 U.S. children have too-low vitamin D levels, putting them at risk of heart disease, rickets, and weak bones.

Nearly one in 10 kids -- 7.6 million American children -- are actually deficient in vitamin D. Low vitamin D is risky, but vitamin D deficiency is a serious health threat in which the body begins to reabsorb calcium from the skeleton.

The new findings come in a study by Juhi Kumar, MD, MPH, of Montefiore Medical Center; Michal Melamed, MD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine; and colleagues.

"We expected the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency would be high, but the magnitude of the problem nationwide was shocking," Kumar says in a news release.

Rickets, a bone disease of infants caused by too little vitamin D, has been on the rise. It's not the first time: A U.S. epidemic of rickets at the end of the 1800s ended only when the U.S. fortified milk with vitamin D.

It's now apparent that more must be done. People get vitamin D from foods like milk and fish, but it's hard to get enough from diet alone. The body makes its own vitamin D, but only when a person gets at least 10 minutes of direct sunshine a day, before putting on sunscreen.

Most people need regular vitamin D supplements. Indeed, the Kumar study found that children who took vitamin D supplements were least likely to have low vitamin D levels. But only 4% of kids get these supplements.

Some kids were at particularly high risk of low vitamin D levels:

  • Older children
  • Girls
  • African-American children
  • Mexican-American children
  • Obese children
  • Kids who drank milk less than once a week
  • Kids who spent more than four hours a day watching TV, playing video games, or using computers

Melamed noted that the widespread use of sunscreens keeps kids from getting vitamin D from sunlight.

"It would be a good idea for parents to turn off the TV and send their kids outside," she says in the news release. Just 15 to 20 minutes a day should be enough. And unless they burn easily, don't put sunscreen on them until they've been out in the sun for 10 minutes, so they get the good stuff but not the sun damage."

The Kumar study is an analysis of data gathered in the 2001 to 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) of a nationally representative sample of 6,275 children aged 1 to 21.

Low Vitamin D, Future Heart Disease

Kids who have low vitamin D levels are at serious risk of heart disease in adulthood, find Johns Hopkins researcher Jared P. Reis, PhD, and colleagues.

Reis' team analyzed data from 3,577 12- to 19-year-olds in the NHANES database.

They found that even after controlling for all kinds of factors that affect heart disease risk -- obesity, exercise levels, race/ethnicity, age, gender, and socioeconomic status -- low vitamin D put kids at risk of heart disease as adults.

Compared to the 25% of kids with the highest vitamin D levels, the 25% of kids with the lowest vitamin D levels had:

  • a 2.36-fold higher risk of high blood pressure
  • a 2.54-fold higher risk of high blood-fat levels
  • a 50% higher risk of low levels of good HDL cholesterol
  • a nearly fourfold higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a set of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease.

Kids with low vitamin D levels were more likely to be obese, but even non-obese kids with low vitamin D had more risk factors for heart disease in the not-too-distant future.

The Reis study appears alongside the Kumar study in the September issue of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: Kumar, J. Pediatrics, September 2009; vol 124, published online ahead of print. Reis, J.P. Pediatrics, September 2009; vol 124, published online ahead of print. News release, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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