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Sunlight Is Important for Healthy Bones in the Elderly

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Most seniors prefer a quieter life indoors compared to the more prolific outdoor activities experienced earlier in life. While prolonged sun exposure gets a lot of negative media attention, and rightfully so with the risk of skin cancer, it does play a very important role in maintaining healthy bones. For most of us, the idea of healthy bones means calcium, vitamin D and exercise. However, without sunlight, vitamin D production can be greatly hampered. Therefore it is not just about food and supplementation when it comes to vitamin D – sunlight probably may be the most significant. It also has added indirect benefits to bone health that is not always obvious at the outset.

Sunlight, Skin and Healthy Bones

The human skin is not often thought of as a significant contributor to healthy bones. However, it is as important as sunlight. A compound that naturally exists on the skin, known as 7-dehydrocholesterol, requires sunlight to convert into the vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). In this way, both the human skin and sunlight directly contribute to vitamin D in the human body.

Cholecalciferol is then further processed in the liver and kidneys to yield the most biologically active form of vitamin D known as calcitriol. Ultimately it is this vitamin D that directly impacts bone health by facilitating the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the gut and assisting in the calcification process that hardens bones. While it can be sourced from food, production in the body is still a major source of vitamin D.

The importance of this process cannot be understated. It is not unusual for people living in more northern regions with lower sun exposure to suffer from vitamin D deficiency. In fact, a person who avoids the sun can be just as much at risk for vitamin D deficiency even while in sunnier climates.

Sunlight for Active Seniors

Another indirect way that sunlight contributes to healthy bones arises from its effects on mood and emotions. Without adequate sunlight exposure, a person is more likely to be depressed and therefore less physically active. This sometimes occurs episodically during certain times of the year in areas with less sunlight and is known as seasonal affective disorder.

Exercise means more active muscles. When muscles are active, it applies force on the bones when it contracts. This in turn stimulates the body to strengthen the bones in order to provide a strong and stable support for muscle action. Similarly physical activity means greater pressure on the bones as it bears the body weight. This as well strengthens the bones.

Sunlight Is Both Good and Bad

Although sunlight has these important benefits in bone health, exposure should nevertheless be limited. In fact, even moderate exposure on a daily basis can be detrimental to the skin and eyes. Therefore adequate protection is necessary with the use of sunscreens and sunglasses and should not be compromised for the sake of healthy bones.

Skin cancer, which is one of the main concerns of excessive sun exposure, is a serious and dangerous condition. It can spread to various organs in the body, including the bones and bone marrow. Striking the balance between the benefit and risks of sun exposure is therefore important. However, even a few minutes walking outdoors without direct sunlight exposure is often sufficient to receive the benefits of sunlight in healthy bones.


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