Can basking in the sun lengthen our lives? That’s what researchers may have shown in a new study in Cell Reports linking vitamin D to disease prevention and a longer lifespan in worms.

Humans largely get their vitamin D from sunlight — our bodies produce the vitamin when our skin is exposed to the ultraviolet rays — and use it for promoting calcium absorption, cell and bone growth, and immune function. The sun’s vitamin is believed to play an important role in many illnesses as well: Those who are deficient could develop diabetes, cardiovascular disease or even cancer, and research shows it reduces negative mental health symptoms, including in patients with depression, anxiety and dementia. Now doctors may add aging to its treatment list.

As the body gets older, proteins are not as able to maintain their shape and function, and sometimes that can lead to age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, and heart disease because toxic proteins are accumulating in the body. But in the worms, the study says, vitamin D prevented that accumulation by acting upon genes that influence longevity.

“Given that aging processes are thought to be similar between the worm and mammals, including humans, it makes sense that the action of vitamin D would be conserved across species as well,” senior author Gordon Lithgow said in a statement from the Buck Institute.

Ironically, the same vitamin that can protect against age-related diseases becomes harder to absorb as people age. The Buck Institute notes that over time, the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D diminishes, and Lithgow thinks that deficiency may be making people age faster and become more susceptible to disease.

Because the worms tested with vitamin D lived about a third longer, Lithgow said, “Our findings provide a real connection between aging and disease and give clinicians and other researchers an opportunity to look at vitamin D in a much larger context.” The next step is testing on mice.

Source: Lithgow GJ, Mark KA, Dumas KJ, et al. Vitamin D Promotes Protein Homeostasis and Longevity via the Stress Response Pathway Genes SKN-1, IRE-1, and XBP-1. Cell Reports. 2016.