A state-of-the-art X-ray scanner has revealed vitamin D deficiency makes young bones look old, according to a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Vitamin D is essential for building strong bones. Although it is naturally produced by our skin after exposure to sunlight, estimates show that nearly one in four people has below sufficient levels of beneficial substance.

Women over 30 have the biggest risk for developing vitamin D deficiency and similiarly suffer from the highest rates of the bone disease osteoporosis. But inadequate levels of vitamin D are also common in younger individuals, including men between the ages of 19 and 30.

Scientists from the University of California Berkeley and University Medical Center Hamburg have now recorded in exquisite detail how lacking this vitamin can impact bone structure.

They recruited 30 subjects — half deficient and half with normal vitamin D levels — and scanned their bones with synchrotron radiation-based microcomputed tomography. This special brand of X-ray can record nano-scale structural features of one's bones in 3-D. Its light beams can also penetrate deep within the bone to reveal details that can't been seen by a regular X-ray.

The bones in vitamin D deficient subjects showed signs of premature aging. Microcracks were largers and more common in these people.

On the surface of the bone, fewer minerals, like calcium, were observed, which paralleled prior work. In contrast, deep within the bone, mineralization was actually denser by three-fold. Cells responsible for upkeep and remodeling the bone were unable to access these deeper layers in people with vitamin D deficiency, according to the authors.

The study highlights the importance of getting enough sun exposure to keep vitamin D at a normal level. Vitamin D is also found in foods like oily fish or in fortified dairy products.

This is especially valid for older people. Nearly nine out of 10 elderly patients who are admitted to hospitals for extended stay are vitamin D deficient, while between 20 to 30 percent of those who break their hips die within a year.

Source: Busse B, Bale HA, Zimmermann EA, et al. Vitamin D Deficiency Induces Early Signs of Aging in Human Bone, Increasing the Risk of Fracture. Science Translational Medicine. 2013.