Vitamin D and Omega-3 Supplements Help the Elderly Boost Their Immune Systems, Against COVID-19 Infection Study Claims
Taking vitamin D and omega-3 supplements on a regular basis may help older adults fight infections, including the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), according to findings from a new study.
The DO-HEALTH study, published in the November issue of JAMA, tested whether vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, and a strength-training exercise program—alone or in combination—improved certain health outcomes among older adults.
Dr. Heike A. Bischoff-Ferrari, who co-authored the study, said the findings suggest vitamin D and omega-3 supplements may have an effect on infections in adults 70 years old and older who live an active lifestyle and do not have pre-existing health conditions. The supplements, however, do not offer benefits when it comes to bone health, memory, and muscle function, Bischoff-Ferrari said.
The study supports previous research suggesting that high concentrations of vitamin D, which has antiviral properties, help to boost the immune system and reduce the risk and severity of the coronavirus. Studies also show that older adults have a greater chance of developing severe complications from COVID-19 because of their low levels of vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium, which the heart, muscles, and nerves need to function properly and for blood to clot. The body can get vitamin D from supplements, the sun, and foods like salmon, tuna, and egg yokes. The vitamin is also known to support bone and muscle health, the immune system, and protect against acute respiratory tract infection.
Do-Health Study Findings
The randomized study involved 2,157 adults aged 70 and older who did not have pre-existing health conditions, mobility problems, or cognitive problems. Participants were recruited between December 2012 and November 2014, and final follow-up was in November 2017. The participants were recruited from seven European cities in countries that included Austria, France, Germany, Portugal, and Switzerland.
Participants were randomly divided into one of the following eight groups and received:
- 2000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D3 per day
- 1 gram per day of omega-3 fatty acid supplement, and a strength-training exercise program
- Vitamin D3 and omega-3
- Vitamin D3 and a strength-training exercise program
- Vitamin D3 alone
- Omega-3 and a strength-training exercise program
- Omega-3 alone
- A strength-training exercise program alone
Participants health was monitored over the three-year period, with researchers looking at outcomes for blood pressure, memory, bone and muscle density, walking speed, and important biomarkers. New illnesses, infections, falls, visits to doctors, and hospital stays were also recorded.
The results showed:
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplement reduced the risk of urinary tract infection by 62 percent and upper respiratory tract infection by 10 percent.
- Vitamin D and omega-3 and strength training did not reduce the risk of bone fractures or make an impact on improving muscle and memory function.
- Vitamin D reduced the risk of infection in 70- to 74-year-old participants by 16 percent and lowered systolic blood pressure by 2.5 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) in men.
Bischoff-Ferrari said further study is warranted on vitamin D’s ability to lower the systolic blood pressure in men.
More Vitamin D-COVID-19 Studies Needed
Despite study findings, researchers continue to debate whether taking vitamin D supplements can actually help in fending off infections, specifically COVID-19.
Dr. Kathleen Suozzi, a dermatologic surgeon at Yale School of Medicine, believes that more and different types of studies using randomized controlled groups are needed to understand if there is a connection between vitamin D and the coronavirus.
One such study could involve testing the vitamin D levels of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 and then randomly assigning them to a vitamin D supplement or no supplement, she said. According to Suozzi, this type of study could better show if vitamin D plays a role.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) there is not enough data to recommend either for or against using vitamin D to prevent or treat COVID-19. As a result, ongoing observational studies are evaluating the role vitamin D plays in protecting against a COVID-19 infection, according to the NIH.
Meanwhile, Bischoff-Ferrari said he believes the DO-HEALTH results are relevant to public health “given the safety and affordability of the supplements and the high mortality from infection in older adults.”