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Get outside in sun for vital vitamins

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: December 06, 2012

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HANNAH Fosterman is like countless other Llanelli 10-year-olds. She often prefers to play on her XBox rather than with her friends outside, is driven to most places rather than being forced to walk and covers up with a high protection sun screen whenever she does actually venture out in the summer.

It's not always the best of lifestyles perhaps. Neither is it that unusual these days either.

But already warnings are being sounded that it is the kind of life that could trigger a return to the 1920s when a large number of children suffered from rickets, which affects bone development in children and can leave sufferers with bowed legs.

One of the dullest summers on record coupled with children not playing outside means that many youngster's vitamin D resources have not been replenished in time for winter. A shortfall in the vitamin, which is produced by the body when we go out in the sun, then stored, can cause rickets, a disease which most of us associate with Victorian Britain rather than with the modern day.

Hannah's mother Jane, 39, from Swiss Valley, says she recognises changing lifestyles have impacted on the way children such as her own now play.

"I know that when I was a child, I was out all the time," she adds.

"That just doesn't happen these days. Hannah does play out, of course.

"But she loves her XBox too: what child doesn't?"

Professor Norman Ratcliffe, from Swansea University, says because 2012 was one of the dullest summers on record, vitamin D stores have not been replenished in time for winter, when the light levels in much of the UK are too low for many to make it.

Met Office figures show that hours of sunshine in the summer of 2012 were 18 per cent lower than the average over the last 30 years and lower than at least any of the last 10 summers.

"The situation in 2012 is probably much more serious than normal with the dull summer leading to even more people with vitamin D deficiency," said the professor in a Daily Telegraph article.

And that vitamin shortfall, he warned, might stretch over into spring/summer of 2013, with the effects being many and serious.

"The effects of low vitamin D levels in the body are very serious as adequate levels may be necessary to prevent common cancers, heart and auto-immune diseases, rickets, osteomalacia (bone pain and muscle weakness), diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression."

Some orthopedic surgeons are reporting cases of children as young as two being diagnosed with full-blown rickets, with bowed legs that may need surgery. And the fact that children spend less time playing outdoors than they used to and they are often driven to school rather than walking, is part of the problem, according to some. But adjustment to diet and behaviour can help to nip the problem in the bud, with pregnant women, children under five, people over 65 years old and people with dark skin being particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency.

Swansea GP Charlotte Jones, deputy chairman of the GP Committee of Wales, says doctors are seeing higher numbers of patients at risk of the deficiency, with children and the elderly, as well as some ethic groups most in need of extra vigilance.

"Children and the elderly often need more vitamin D and calcium," she adds. "Children need them for healthy bone development and elderly people need to protect their bones against fractures.

"And certain ethnic groups are more prone to vitamin D deficiency, particularly if they tend to keep their skin covered up for cultural reasons."

Paying close attention to diet and exercise and being a little less vigilant when it comes to sun exposure, within guidelines, is the key to combating the problem, she says.

"I think people are less focused on eating healthily and on exercising," she adds.

"And those foods which are rich in vitamin D are foods a lot of people don't like - oily fish and cod liver oil are good sources.

"But vitamin D and calcium are added to lots of breakfast cereals.

"I don't want to encourage people to increase their risk of skin cancer, but some sun exposure is recommended to help with the deficiency."

Jane Fosterman says she is going to encourage her daughter away from the sofa and out into the garden as much as possible.

"She's not alone." she adds.

" A lot of her friends are the same. The way we live now is different to what it was say a decade ago. We just have to adapt to those changes."

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