Some Sunlight May Benefit Your Health, If You’re Older

Older adults prone to lower levels of vitamin D

couple in car enjoying sun

We all know that getting too much sun can be harmful to your health. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a major risk factor for most skin cancers.

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But if you’re an older adult, sunlight – in the right amount – may provide health benefits too, a recent study says.

Sunlight causes your body to produce vitamin D. Data is emerging that suggests sunlight — with its ability to produce vitamin D — may reduce the risk of hip fractures, high blood pressure and stroke or heart attack for older adults, the study says.

The researchers, who  reviewed information gathered from a variety of sources, call for more data to weigh the potential benefits of moderate UV radiation against potential harm specifically for older adults.

That’s because the familiar recommendations to avoid the sun are based on data from the entire population – children through older adults. The data may not take into account important distinctions for older adults, the researchers say.

For example, older adults get far less sunlight than others because they tend to stay indoors. In addition, because of changes associated with aging, their skin is less efficient at producing vitamin D from sun exposure.

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If you are an older adult, you need vitamin D. Vitamin D bolsters your skeletal health and may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, hip fractures, and vascular events such as stroke or heart attack, the study says. So, despite the cancer risk, older adults still may benefit from some sunlight, the researchers say.

Sunlight has other hidden benefits. With its power to produce vitamin D, it protects against depression, insomnia and an overactive immune system, geriatrician Ronan Factora, MD, says.

“There are some links between sunlight exposure and improved muscle function, bone and cardiovascular health, improved mood — even improved cognitive function,” Dr. Factora says.

What to do

The researchers say that older adults should adopt a balanced approach to sun exposure. You should avoid long hours in the sun. But you should try to get at least some exposure to sunshine several days a week, Dr. Factora says.

More detailed research is needed to determine the specific amounts of sunshine that best benefit older adults, the researchers say.

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You don’t need to rely on sunshine alone to get adequate amounts of vitamin D. Eating certain foods can help increase levels of vitamin D, too, Dr. Factora says. Foods with high amounts of vitamin D include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon or tuna
  • Fortified milk
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Eggs

It is important to check product labels, as the amount of added vitamin D varies when artificially added to products such as orange juice, yogurt, and margarine.

Increased sun exposure not safe for everyone

In addition to age, researchers say current recommendations on sun exposure should be tailored to skin type and location because ultraviolet light intensity varies with geography.

Certain individuals should be very careful how much time they spend in the sun, no matter what their age. Dr. Factora says to limit your exposure to sunlight if you have:

  • a known history of skin cancer
  • sun damage from long-term sun exposure
  • a history of sunburns
  • skin changes that are suspicious for skin cancer

What about supplements?

Work with your doctor to determine if you need to take a vitamin supplement and, if so, how much to take. Too much vitamin D can build up in the body if used incorrectly.