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Could Sunshine Be Responsible for Keeping the Brain Sharp?

Would sunshine be responsible for better cognitive function? Studies are suggestive, not definitive, but it does seem possible.

Sunlight is an essential component of life on earth. Beyond photosynthesis and the food chain that proceeds from it, human beings also seem to benefit from sun exposure. We need time in the sun to make vitamin D, and that in turn, helps protect us from cancer. In addition, though, scientists are beginning to ask: might sunshine be responsible for good cognitive function?

Will Sunshine Be Responsible for Better Learning and Memory?

Research from Finland suggests that people who live in sunnier neighborhoods get a boost in brain power. In the study, more than 1,800 middle-aged Finns participated in extensive cognitive testing (Scientific Reports, Dec. 2, 2022). These people, 34 to 49 years old, were volunteers in the prospective cohort study, Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns. The investigators also calculated daily exposure to solar radiation for each participant’s zip code during several different time frames.

Researchers detected no connection between sunshine and cognitive performance for the shorter time periods of two months and one year. When they considered solar radiation over longer periods of two and five years, however, they made a discovery. Those with greater residential exposure to sunlight performed better on tests of global cognitive function. In addition, new learning, visual memory and sustained attention were better among those with at least a year of greater residential sun exposure.

There are some downsides. Specifically, people reacted more slowly. Moreover, they did not do any better on measures of executive function, which are crucial to decision-making.

Might Sunshine Be Responsible for Improved Memory?

Q. I have lived in Seattle for 35 years but this past winter I spent three months in Arizona. I have noticed a definite, dramatic improvement in my memory and I am thinking more clearly. Could this be due to the vitamin D I have gotten from sun exposure in Arizona?

I am 59 and do not take vitamins. I eat well, ride a bike about 50 miles a week and lift weights. Could sunshine be responsible for a difference in my mental ability?

A. There’s no way to know if living in the northwest led to a vitamin D deficiency. But if it did, you might have benefited from restoring your vitamin D stores to normal levels.

A research review concluded,

“Recent studies have confirmed an association between cognitive impairment, dementia, and vitamin D deficiency” (Clinical Interventions in Aging, April 2, 2014).

To learn more about vitamin D and how to make sure you are getting enough, you may want to read our Guide to Vitamin D Deficiency.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Komulainen K et al, "Long-term residential sunlight exposure associated with cognitive function among adults residing in Finland." Scientific Reports, Dec. 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-25336-6
  • Schlögl M & Holick M, "Vitamin D and neurocognitive function." Clinical Interventions in Aging, April 2, 2014. DOI: 10.2147/CIA.S51785
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