Vitamin D May Play Role in Cancer Progression, Hypertension Among Blacks

Vitamin D intake has been in the spotlight during the past year, and now two additional URMC studies point to separate and significant roles in heart disease and cancer.

Study results published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine concluded that low vitamin D levels among black people might be a powerful factor that contributes to the racial differences in hypertension.

The findings are consistent with growing evidence that lower vitamin D status is associated with higher blood pressure, and that people with darker skin generally produce less vitamin D, said study author Kevin Fiscella, M.D., professor of Family Medicine at URMC and an expert in health disparities.

“Our study confirms that vitamin D represents one piece of the complex puzzle of race and blood pressure,” Fiscella said. “And, since black-white differences in blood pressure represent thousands of excess deaths due to heart disease and stroke among blacks, we believe that simple interventions such as taking vitamin D supplements might have a positive impact on racial disparities.”

A second URMC study, highlighted last spring at The American Society of Breast Surgeons, concluded that low vitamin D levels among women with breast cancer correlated with more aggressive tumors and poorer prognosis.

Researchers believe their report is one of the first to examine the role of vitamin D in breast cancer progression. Previous studies have focused on vitamin D deficiency and the risk of cancer development. The URMC epidemiology study associates sub-optimal vitamin D levels with poor scores on every major biological marker that helps physicians predict a patient’s breast cancer outcome.

Kevin Fiscella, M.D.

Kevin Fiscella, M.D.

“The magnitude of the findings was quite surprising,” said lead researcher Luke J. Peppone, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. “Based on these results, doctors should strongly consider monitoring vitamin D levels among breast cancer patients and correcting them as needed.”

The role of vitamin D in disease prevention and progression is still an area of great uncertainty. However, an Institute of Medicine report in fall 2010 pushed the “sunshine vitamin” to the forefront and suggested that physicians pay closer attention to deficiencies, especially in northern climates.

IOM guidelines recommend that most children and adults modestly increase their vitamin D from a daily dietary intake of 200 international units to 600 international units. The panel also extended the safe upper limit for older children and adults from 2000 IU to 4000 IU daily.

Although some observational studies have suggested that taking much higher doses of vitamin D might prevent a variety of illnesses, from bone diseases to strokes and cancer, the IOM was not completely convinced. It concluded that studies related to conditions other than bone health were inconsistent and inconclusive. The panel also said that taking mega doses over a long period of time might be harmful.

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