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Blizard Institute - Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Q&A: Vitamin D3 replacement enhances antigen-specific immunity in older adults

Research published in the journal Immunotherapy Advances by scientists from the Centre for Immunobiology at the Blizard Institute, University College London, University of Edinburgh and Royal Free Hospital in London has shown that vitamin D replacement enhances antigen-specific immunity in the elderly. In this Q&A, Corresponding Author Dr Emma Chambers from the Centre for Immunobiology discusses these recent findings and the wider implications for improving the health-span of the UK’s aging population.

Vitamin D capsules

Vitamin D capsules

What is new about the study?

We know that the immune system (white blood cells) do not work as well in older people (>65 years), which results in them being more susceptible to viral infections such as COVID-19, influenza and shingles. In this study we show for the first time, that vitamin D supplementation (in individuals who are vitamin D insufficient) can significantly improve immunity to the virus that causes shingles (Varicella Zoster Virus) in the elderly.

Is there anything surprising about the results?

What is fascinating about this study is that vitamin D, which is a cheap, safe and readily available vitamin, has the capability to improve immunity in older adults

Why is the study important?

The UK has an ageing population; however, this also means that we are living longer with chronic illnesses and increased number and severity of infections. It is known that the immune system (white blood cells) does not work as well in older people (>65 years), which contributes to increased infections seen with age. Therefore, it is imperative to identify therapeutic targets which can enhance immunity in the elderly, helping them fight infections. In this study we identify that vitamin D supplementation, which is cheap and easily accessible, can boost immunity making the older person’s immune system behave ‘younger’ again.

What are the wider implications?

Although a small study, this data suggests that vitamin D insufficiency contributes to the defect in immunity observed with age. Our data suggests that if used as part of a public health initiative targeting older adults, it has the potential to significantly improve the health-span by improving antigen-specific immunity and potentially increasing vaccine efficacy. In addition, vitamin D insufficiency has been linked with worse clinical outcomes in the current COVID-19 pandemic, and these findings may explain in part why vitamin D insufficiency is associated with increased susceptibility to severe COVID-19 disease.

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