CHICAGO (AP) – An abundance of vitamin D seems to help prevent multiple sclerosis, according to a study in more than 7 million people that offers some of the strongest evidence yet of the power of the “sunshine vitamin” against MS.

The findings could be significant news for people living in Maine and other northern states. Those situated north of the 35th parallel – roughly the belly of the nation – are nearly twice as likely to suffer from the disease.

In Maine, prevalence is 70 percent higher than the national average, according to the state’s MS Society chapter. It’s data as of March 2005 showed about 3,000 Mainers with the disease, a rate of one in 400 based on Census figures. Nationally, the rate is one in 293.

Earlier studies in Maine linked a lack of sunshine to vitamin D deficiency. A Boston University study released in June 2005 found that adolescent girls living in the Bangor area were at increased risk of the deficiency, which could eventually compromise their bone health.

Another study, from the mid 1990s, of older women living in Greenville also determined they were at risk of bone density problems related to reduced vitamin D intake resulting from shortened winter days.

The national MS research found that white members of the U.S. military with the highest blood levels of vitamin D were 62 percent less likely to develop multiple sclerosis than people with low levels.

There was no such connection in blacks or Hispanics, possibly because there were so few in the group studied. Also, the body makes vitamin D from sunlight, and the pigmented skin of blacks and other dark-skinned ethnic groups doesn’t absorb sunlight as easily as pale skin.

The new research echoes findings in smaller studies that examined why the nerve-damaging disease historically has been more common in people who live in regions farther from the equator where there is less intense year-round sunlight.

“This is the first large prospective study where blood levels are measured in young adults and compared to their future risk. It’s definitely different and much stronger evidence,” said Dr. Alberto Ascherio, the senior author and an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

The study appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

“If confirmed, this finding suggests that many cases of MS could be prevented by increasing vitamin D levels,” Ascherio said.

Still, he said the findings don’t prove that a lack of vitamin D can cause MS, so it’s too preliminary to recommend that people take vitamin D pills to avoid the disease.

Vitamin D also is found in fortified milk and oily fish, but it’s hard to get enough just from diet. Sunlight is the biggest source of vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones. Other studies have linked high levels of vitamin D in the blood to lower risks of a variety of cancers.

The MS researchers worked with the Army and Navy in analyzing blood samples of military personnel stored by the Department of Defense.

Military databases showed that 257 service men and women were diagnosed with MS between 1992 and 2004. The increased MS risk was especially strong in people who were younger than 20 when they entered the study. The researchers said that finding suggests that vitamin D exposure before adulthood could be particularly important.

Using blood samples to measure vitamin D levels “tends to nail it down in a much more reliable way” than studies that have relied on people’s memories of vitamin D exposure, said Dr. Nicholas LaRocca of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

MS is among the most common nerve disorders affecting young adults, mostly women. About 350,000 people in the United States and 2 million worldwide have MS, a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the fatty insulation that surrounds nerve fibers.

Ascherio said there’s some evidence that its incidence is increasing in sunny regions including the South and West, possibly because people are avoiding the sun or using sunscreen to protect against skin cancer.

Some doctors think those practices also have contributed to vitamin D deficiencies in adolescents and young adults.

“There’s no question that vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic in the United States,” said Dr. William Finn, a vitamin D expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The MS study “is just one more reason to pay attention to it.”

MS symptoms vary but can be disabling and can include tingling pain in the arms and legs, fatigue and vision problems.

Doctors believe it is genetic and perhaps triggered in susceptible people by environmental causes, including possibly some viruses. Vitamin D deficiency could be another trigger.

It’s unclear how lack of vitamin D might contribute. In mouse experiments, the vitamin stimulated production of chemicals that fight an MS-like disease.

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