The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Vitamin D and exercise may protect against age-associated loss of cognition

Posted in
Live well

Friday, May 25, 2018

As the average life expectancy continues to rise in the United States (78.8 years), there is an increasing need to identify modifiable risk factors that contribute to the cognitive and physical deterioration associated with aging. The Cooper Institute research team examined the relationship between vitamin D levels, cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in older adults. They found that in generally healthy people, vitamin D and cardiorespiratory fitness were significantly associated with cognitive function. Preventive measures such as taking a vitamin D supplement and getting regular physical exercise may protect us as we age from memory loss and/or cognitive decline.

Though vitamin D deficiency[1] and insufficiency[2] is preventable, this condition affects more than a billion people worldwide. Additionally, several studies have shown that cardiorespiratory fitness is related to both blood-level vitamin D and cognitive function. Numerous tests have been developed for the purpose of evaluating cognitive function. One such test is the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), a paper and pencil screening tool that requires approximately 10 minutes to administer. The
assessment, scored on a scale of 0-30, is designed to evaluate various cognitive domains such as: attention, concentration, memory, language, calculation, etc. For the purposes of the current study, a MoCA score <25 indicated the presence of mild cognitive impairment.
Our research team at The Cooper Institute, along with researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, hypothesized that in otherwise healthy older adults (>55 years), low blood-level vitamin D concentration (<30 ng/mL) would be associated with lower MoCA scores (i.e. cognitive impairment). All participants (n = 1193 women, n = 3165 men) in the study completed a baseline examination including blood vitamin D level, maximal treadmill exercise test to measure cardiorespiratory fitness, and a MoCA score.  We found that those in the low vitamin D group were 26% more likely to have cognitive impairment compared to the normal vitamin D group. 

Further, cardiorespiratory fitness was also significantly associated
to cognitive function. In fact, for every 1 metabolic equivalent (MET) increase in cardiorespiratory fitness, the likelihood of having a low MoCA score (i.e. cognitive impairment) decreased by 6%. In conclusion, in this generally healthy community-based sample, vitamin D and cardiorespiratory fitness were significantly associated with cognitive function. Therefore, preventive measures such as vitamin D supplementation and physical exercise may play a protective role in memory loss and/or age-associated cognitive decline. This research is part of the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, one of the longest-running studies and the most highly-referenced database on physical fitness in the world. The vitamin D study can be read for free in Preventative Medicine for the next few weeks.

Article Reference: Pavlovic, A., Abel, K., Barlow, C.E., Farrell, S.W., Weiner, M., DeFina, L.F. (2018). The association between serum vitamin D level and cognitive function in older adults: Cooper Center Longitudinal Study. Preventive Medicine, 113C, 57 – 61.

[1] Vitamin D deficiency is <20 ng/mL
[2] Vitamin D insufficiency is 20-29 ng/mL