An EU-funded project providing the first internationally comparable data has found that an estimated 1 in 8 (13%) of the EU population are vitamin D deficient.
The team says these calculations are the first “firm evidence” of the significant risk vitamin D deficiency poses to public health.
The data comes as part of the four-year EU-funded ODIN project, which began in late 2013 and consists of a multi-disciplinary team of 31 partners from 19 countries.
It is widely known that a lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
Recent Hospital Episode Statistic data from 2013/14 showed that those aged 55+ were 258% more likely to be diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency than those between the ages of 25-55.
Other groups of people more likely to have lower levels of vitamin D include:
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- Babies and children under five years’ old
- Those aged sixty-five and older
- Those who spend long periods of time indoors
- Those who cover up with clothing when outside
- Darker skinned people e.g., those of African, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian origin
This study found that irrespective of age and ethnicity, 13% of the 55,844 European individuals included had average serum vitamin D levels of less than 30 nanomole (nmol) per litre throughout the year. In October to March this rose to 17.7% and fell in April to November to 8.3%.
In dark-skinned ethnic subgroups the prevalence of levels lower than 30nmol/L was between three and 71 times higher than white populations depending on the country.
If an alternative definition of deficiency of less than 50nmol/L was used, the overall prevalence rose to 40.4%.
‘Vitamin D deficiency is evident throughout the European population at prevalence rates that are concerning and that require action from a public health perspective’, the paper concluded.
Strategies for coping with deficiency
National strategies on vitamin D deficiency have been discussed in several EU countries in recent years.
One such country that has expanded its list of foods subject to mandatory vitamin D fortification to help tackle the problem is Sweden who suffer largely from low levels of sunlight in the region due to its geographical location.
As very few foods naturally contain high levels of vitamin D and cases of rickets in the UK have been increasing, this study highlights the need for similar initiatives in the UK.
Vitamin D is linked to several important functions in the body including the regulation of calcium and phosphate, key nutrients for healthy bones and teeth.