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Vitamin D Doesn't Prevent Late-Life Depression, New Study Shows

old man sitting on the bed looking sad

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Key Takeaways

  • Low levels of vitamin D have long been connected to depression and anxiety, but those findings are still up for debate.
  • A large-scale trial showed that vitamin D supplementation showed no significant benefit over a placebo when it comes to preventing depression in those age 50 and older.
  • Experts note that vitamin D still has many benefits, even if it's not a depression-buster for older people.

Vitamin D is often associated with a lower prevalence of depression, but the results of a recent study undermine this correlation. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 2020, found that vitamin D supplementation did not result in statistically important differences in the incidence and recurrence of depression compared to the use of a placebo.

"There was no significant benefit from the supplement for depression or mood improvement," says the study's lead author, Olivia Okereke, MD of the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital. However, she adds that for those over 50, these findings don't mean vitamin D is a waste in terms of supplementation—they likely just offer different benefits than depression prevention."

Benefits of Vitamin D

Keep in mind, this particular study, which looked at just over 18,000 adults who were considered at risk for depression, was about prevention, not treatment. Although addressing depression requires a multi-layered approach, it's possible that eliminating a vitamin D deficiency could have an effect.

For example, a small clinical trial found that after eight weeks of vitamin D supplementation, participants with depression reported significant improvements in their symptoms.

The research around vitamin D is ongoing, and although this recent study was larger than most, it's still just one study in an evolving understanding of micronutrients and their impact on the brain.

Another point, as Okereke suggests, is that vitamin D has numerous other health benefits backed up by research that are worth considering. The vitamin has been linked to advantages like:

  • Improved cardiovascular risk and outcomes
  • Reduction in risk for cancers like breast, prostate, blood, and colon
  • Stronger immunity
  • Better bone health, due to regulation of calcium
  • Stronger metabolic health
  • Helps increase muscle strength
  • Improves oral health
  • Higher prevention for type 2 diabetes

Addressing Late-Life Depression

Putting aside the question of whether vitamin D—or any supplement—can be effective for older people who struggle with depression, addressing this issue in research is still important, believes Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

"Loneliness, isolation, and depression are significant in the older population, especially right now with the pandemic limiting their social activities," says Kaiser. "This isn't just a mental health issue, either. We know, from research and clinical experience, that these struggles can have a profound effect on chronic health issues, including early mortality."

Scott Kaiser, MD

Loneliness, isolation, and depression are significant in the older population, especially right now with the pandemic limiting their social activities.

— Scott Kaiser, MD

There can be numerous causes of late-life depression, research notes. Some strategies that can help those age 50 and above—or any age, really—can include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Focus on sleep quality and duration
  • Healthy eating
  • Review of medications, since depression may be a side effect
  • Cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Consistent communication and social support
  • Talking with a doctor to rule out medical issues like cardiovascular disease and dementia

In terms of treatment, Kaiser suggests talking with your healthcare provider about both your symptoms and anxiety as a possible cause. Even if you're under a stay-at-home order, there are many telehealth options right now, he adds, which means you can have an appointment and even get a prescription without going into an office.

What This Means For You

If you find yourself living with a challenging mental health condition and are experiencing signs of depression—which can manifest as physical symptoms like fatigue, chronic pain, headaches, and stomach pain—talk with your primary care physician or another healthcare provider for appropriate referrals.

You may be able to do telehealth sessions with a therapist or other mental health professional, even as a new patient. If you're having any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

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