Chronic diseases account for the vast majority of deaths in European countries. Cardiovascular disease accounts for about 40% of deaths, with about 15% of deaths from ischaemic heart disease, 10% from strokes, and 25% from cancer. If simple lifestyle changes could reduce the risk of chronic disease, people could live longer, disease treatment costs could be reduced, and work productivity could be increased.
I have used multi-country geographical ecological studies to examine the risk factors for many types of cancer. Smoking, diets with a large fraction of the food from animal products, and alcohol consumption are generally the highest risk factors for many types of cancer.
I have also used single-country geographical ecological studies in mid-latitude countries including the United States, France and Spain to study the role of solar UVB in reducing risk of cancer. I repeatedly find that people living in the sunnier part of the country have lower mortality rates for many types of cancer.
The types of cancer with the strongest evidence for reduction with higher solar UVB doses include bladder, breast, colon, oesophageal, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, stomach cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These findings are supported by other types of studies, although such studies are limited by the small numbers of cases included, few measurements of vitamin D concentrations, and low vitamin D doses in trials.
I estimated that rates for many types of cancer can be reduced by 25% in the US and Europe if all people had vitamin D concentrations above 100 nmol/L, which could be achieved by a daily intake of 2000-4000 IU of vitamin D3.
Alzheimer’s disease affects many people in Europe, with prevalence rates rising to 15-20% by age 80 years. I have done a number of studies on dietary risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease using the ecological approach starting in 1997. Countries with high amounts of animal products and low amounts of cereals/grains have the highest rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Fatty fish is also associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Cooking food at high temperatures also increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
I recently published a paper pointing out that the increase in Alzheimer’s disease rates in Japan from 1% in 1985 to 7% in 2008 was associated with the nutrition transition from the traditional Japanese diet to the Western diet.
Two recent papers reported that people with low vitamin D concentrations were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
An important risk factor for cardiovascular disease is diet. It is well known that saturated animal fats increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Less well known is that added sugar is also an important risk factor. I confirmed findings from earlier studies in a multi-country ecological study in 1998, but the role of sugar was not generally accepted until about five years ago.
In addition, solar UV reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, shown in observational studies of vitamin D concentrations and incidence of the disease. One mechanism is by the production of vitamin D. the other is by liberation of nitric oxide from nitrogen stores under the skin, thereby reducing blood pressure. Both of these actions help explain why cardiovascular disease rates are higher in winter than in summer.
The roles of SUNARC
The stated objectives of SUNARC are to conduct research into the primary causes of chronic and infectious diseases and help educate the public on the findings. As can be seen from the foregoing, the main interests of SUNARC are related to UVB exposure, vitamin D, and nutrition.
SUNARC constantly scours the scientific literature, the press, and the Internet to find interesting findings regarding health risks and data sets that lend themselves to analysis regarding health outcomes such as combining with other data sets in ecological studies. Such studies can be done rapidly and yield important findings many years before traditional epidemiological studies do for a small fraction of the cost of such studies. SUNARC also interacts with the leading vitamin D organisations and collaborates with many health researchers in the US and Europe in doing research and reviews leading to many publications on health.
I translated the vitamin D research findings into estimates of benefits to society if everyone had vitamin D concentrations above 100 nmol/L. For example, my estimates include that all-cause mortality rates could be reduced by about 15%, leading to an increase of life expectancy by two years, and a reduction in the economic burden of disease in Western Europe in 2007 of €187,000 million/year. I also helped develop guidelines for vitamin D levels and supplementation for Central European countries and people with neurodevelopmental disorders and intellectual disabilities.
Grant WB, et al. Estimated benefit of increased vitamin D status in reducing the economic burden of disease in Western Europe. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2009;99:104-13.
Grant WB. An estimate of the global reduction in mortality rates through doubling vitamin D levels.
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2011;65:1016-26. Pludowski P, Grant WB, et al. Practical guidelines for the supplementation of vitamin D and the treatment of deficits in Central Europe – recommended vitamin D intakes in the general population and groups at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Endokrynol Pol. 2013;64:319-27.
Pludowski P, Grant WB, et al. Vitamin D effects on musculoskeletal health, immunity, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, fertility, pregnancy, dementia and mortality – a review of recent evidence. Autoimmun Rev. 2013;12:976-89.
Perrone L, Grant WB. Observational and ecological studies of dietary advanced glycation end products in national diets and Alzheimer’s disease incidence and prevalence. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015 Jan 29. [Epub ahead of print]
Disclosure: SUNARC receives funding from Bio Tech Pharmacal (Fayetteville, AR), MediSun Technology (Highland Park, IL) and the Vitamin D Council (San Luis Obispo, CA).
William B Grant PhD
Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center
Tel: +1 415 409 1980